The soul and the harp

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The soul and the harp/ 31 - Adam guardian of the whole world finally gives voice to the Earth and the universe

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  01/11/2020

"My love, you who formed me in the image of the God who has no face, my Love who tenderly reassembled me after my ruin, my Love, behold, I surrender: I will be your eternal splendour"

David Maria Turoldo,  The Psalms (I Salmi)

My commentary on the Psalter ends here today. And it ends with praise, a cosmic hymn to God. And with a great big thank you.

«Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord» (Psalm 150). 

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Hallelujah, praise the Lord, is the last word of the Psalter. It opened with "blessed is the one (man)" (Psalm 1.1), and now closes with Hallelujah (Psalm 150,6). It begins with God praising man and ends with man praising God (alleleu-Yah: we praise YHWH). Telling us that our whole life can be found between a "blessed" and a "Hallelujah". The Book of Psalms is in fact also a metaphor for human existence, winding through blessings, joy, pain, screams, curses, praises to finally arrive at the Halleluiah, which is sometimes also the last word of life; the one that follows amen. Because if it is already beautiful indeed to leave this world with a mild "so be it", it is even more so to leave it with a Hallelujah, with a last, infinite thank you.

The Jews call the Psalter the "Book of praises", the book of praising God and praising man, praising both across the psalms. Because if it is true that homo sapiens is an animal in need of praising, the Bible tells us that God also has the same need that we do, which he satisfies in the Book and then with the incarnation - "I praise you, Father, because ..." "Praise him" is repeated ten times in this psalm. Like the ten times "And God said" is repeated in Genesis (chap. 1), and like the ten words given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Praise is a different Law, that does not save us due to any of our acts or merits, but only because we are able to say one last Hallelujah, and then receive the same reward as the righteous.

Praise is also a new creation. If God created the world by saying it and continues to create it in every passing moment by saying it and repeating it, we, who were made in his image, create our world with our words, saying it, repeating it, blessing it or cursing it. We create and re-create it every morning, when we get up and at home say the names of our loved ones (if we say them, how we say them); and then saying the names of our colleagues, friends, up to the unknown names of those we quickly meet in a shop or at the bar. Praise is a performative word, which has the ability to modify the reality it praises. When we praise God, we make him more beautiful and splendid (at least within our soul), when we praise any person, we make him or her better and more beautiful (and not only within our soul). To despise any man or woman, to curse him or her with words, is always a very serious act, likewise those who praise God while despising other human beings actually pervert praise and prayer. In praising the God they cannot see while not praising they image that they in fact can see, they deny the very image.

Those who praise God should learn to praise men; they should travel around the world blessing every woman and every man they meet, knowing that the God they praised in the temple really sees them out in the streets. This inter-human praise is among the most beautiful anthropological exercises under the sun. Which also includes praising the sycophants, minions and flatterers, a very common practice, which never rings true and never leads to anything good, rendering both those who offer it and those who receive the praise decidedly worse. It is merely an answer to the request of recognition from others, by inventing a non-existent esteem, which keeps people blessed and deceived in perfect traps of poverty. However, there are also examples of sincere praise in the world, the kind of praise that, in certain decisive moments of life, identifies at least one true reason for goodness and beauty in another person. Because there is always a reason, namely us being made in the image of God, which is more constant than any of the scribbles, which we draw and design for us in the course of life. It knows how to find it; it does not stop digging until it reaches that hidden gem, and then praises it, using all the beautiful words it has learned to say it. How much suffering would cease on earth if we were capable of this true form of praise? This praise is a high form of exercise in agape, because it requires perseverance, patience, relational skill, respect for the timing and ways of the other person, and meekness. A single person capable of this kind of praise can save an entire community. This is the righteous one that Abraham was looking for in Sodom and could not find (Genesis 18). We, however, sometimes do find it, and know what it is truly worth. That is why praise is a global common good of the world, the civil patrimony of every community. Praising – both God and humans – makes us better, even those of us who do not know how to praise.

It is not difficult to recognize those who practice true praise. They are capable of silence, they know how to listen, they know how to celebrate, they can shed tears, they have a great emotional capital; they are moved by the pain of others and even when they touch beauty, they are humble, and they are always grateful. Together with the other four psalms of the Halleluiah, this last psalm is a praise to music and singing. It is a review of musical instruments, which are thus raised to great dignity. Who knows on what biblical basis musicians were devalued in the Middle Ages, or how it came to be that sacred music was prohibited around the Protestant Reformation? These psalms are also a praise to the makers of musical instruments, to the artisans, to the luthiers and to the entire great family of orchestral musicians and people who work with music. Thanks to these psalms, music became part of the languages ​​of God; it is one of the languages ​​with which the angels communicate with us and with each other, music turning into words. And, perhaps, every time a piece of music is performed on earth, God wakes up in heaven, turning around and listening with great interest.

It is not unlikely that this psalm was composed, or at the very least sung, during the Babylonian exile. An ode to the singing, to the musicians and to the choirs of the temple when the temple was no longer there, because it had been destroyed. But the psalms remained alive within the soul of the people, and so that poverty in fact produced a stupendous wealth, which ended up arriving full of life to us in our days because it was purified from any form of force or power. The beauty of these psalms of praise lies in their sober essentiality.

"Let everything that has breath praise the Lord". You could not find a more beautiful ending than this. Human praise extended to include all creation, the animals, the plants, all that is alive. In conclusion, the cosmic fraternity that has accompanied us in these months, returns. Human praise is essential but not enough for the Bible. And here we see Adam, guardian of the whole world, who gives voice to the praise of the Earth and the universe.

There is also a praise of life, a hallelujah of the breath. We are too accustomed to a voluntary based vision of faith, more stoic (and Pelagian) than Christian, which continually leads us to think that spiritual life is all a matter of effort, commitment and will, that it is all a matter of our effort and work. Then we read the psalms, we arrive at this very last verse and discover a different dimension of faith. We are the first praise, and we are so as living and created beings, who breathe, who still have that breath inoculated on them on that first day of creation, never again withdrawn: «The glory of God is man fully alive» (St. Irenaeus). Just like and even more so than the works of art, which are the first act of praise of artists.

Hence, that subjunctive - "Let everything… praise" - can change into an indicative: every being that breathes praises the Lord. The most important praise is who we are, not the words of praise we say. We can say words of praise because first, on a deeper and truer level, we are in fact praise. The birth of a child, the beauty of a girl, the dignity of an old man, an act of loyalty, a friend, are expressions of praise in themselves. Therefore, the good news is that praise on earth is much greater than the words of praise that we say. It then becomes immense, if we add the praise of the birds, the doe, the whale, the tree and the leaf, up to the infinite stars, et clarite et pretiose et belle. It is a silent, deponent, mild form of praise - what is milder than a birch or a dog's gentle eyes? - which reminds us all of the silent, deponent and mild dimension of our own praise. I the eyes of this cosmic and secular praise, the temple is a forest, an office, the heart of a finch, the sea, a whole galaxy. We do not create the most important realities of life with our actions or even with our words. They just are. Our creations are precious, sometimes almost essential. However, what is really essential is what it is, what we are, what life is because it is life. Because we are surrounded by infinite love, and we do not know it. Hallelujah!

Thus, we end this commentary on the Book of Psalms. We began during the first lockdown and we come to a close during an equally uncertain phase. In March, I chose to comment on the Psalms because I believed that the Psalter, with its praises and prayers, would be a good companion on the hard journey that awaited us. I hope this was really the case, at least to a certain extent. It certainly was for me. This time, like with the other nine biblical books I have commented on in recent years for the "Avvenire", I take my leave once again changed from the path taken, marked both in the flesh and in name. Each comment was and is a fight with the angel, leaving me feeling both blessed and wounded. Together with those who followed me, we learned or relearned how to pray, we understood that biblical praise and prayer were different from what we thought, and that they are in fact wonderful.

Thanks to all of you, readers, for the e-mails you wrote to me, one of the greatest joys of this job. Thank you, once again, and each time increasingly so, to Marco Tarquinio, who for years I have kept occupied every Saturday afternoon reading, titling, (the titles are almost always his), and correcting my articles, which are always longer than they should be. Without this both risky and generative reciprocity, I would never have started this strange new "job" of being an economist commentator of the Bible, a job that has changed my life.
l.bruni@lumsa.it

On behalf of many, I thank Luigino Bruni, who knows very well how year after year the titles of his articles have increasingly become part of our common work and effort. And our readers should know that the journey together will continue, of course. (mt)

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The soul and the harp/ 31 - Adam guardian of the whole world finally gives voice to the Earth and the universe

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  01/11/2020

"My love, you who formed me in the image of the God who has no face, my Love who tenderly reassembled me after my ruin, my Love, behold, I surrender: I will be your eternal splendour"

David Maria Turoldo,  The Psalms (I Salmi)

My commentary on the Psalter ends here today. And it ends with praise, a cosmic hymn to God. And with a great big thank you.

«Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord» (Psalm 150). 

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And breath became a Hallelujah

And breath became a Hallelujah

The soul and the harp/ 31 - Adam guardian of the whole world finally gives voice to the Earth and the universe By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire  01/11/2020 "My love, you who formed me in the image of the God who has no face, my Love who tenderly reassembled me after my ruin, my Love,...
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The soul and the harp/30 - True freedom is freeing oneself from misery, not from the «perfect joy» of poverty

 By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 25/10/2020

"The righteous, in whom the Lord has created the desperate need for joy, will have joy"

Sergio Quinzio, A commentary on the Bible (Un commento alla Bibbia)

There is a different form of joy that can only come from a certain kind of poverty. The psalms and the prophets know this well, and liturgy reminds us of it every day.

Joy is not only a desperate need in every human being; it is also a right. A right to joy that is not written in any kind of Constitutional Charter but in the soul of people. A fundamental right that must be defended especially during times of great crises, when it is threatened to the point of being denied. Every empire, not only the Egyptian one at the time of Moses, tries every once in a while to deny its subjects their right to feast and celebrate, because in order to kill hope in a different future, the temptation to deny the right to experience joy is too strong: it never completely succeeds, but it is always attempted insistently. However, there is also a duty to joy, and it is an essential one. Because when joy disappears in a community or society, hope and faith in life disappear right along with it. Sometimes there is more agape in safekeeping the ultimate joy than in loving pain, because a joy guarded by the increasing sadness of years and years and events is a collective good, a blessing for all, a tenacious announcement that we in fact are greater than our destiny.

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In general, children and young people are the ones to bring this special gift to families and communities alike. However, if there aren’t any, or too few of them, so called "Cyrenians of joy", adults guardians of the flame, are needed to perform the function that children carry out by nature, out of love, with a difference, the agape joy of adults and the elderly has a certain scent of heaven and perhaps the greatest power and ability to convert those who touch it. Much like gladness/letizia (from laetus: manure: fertility), this biblical joy is not simply happiness, nor is the right to this joy the right to the simple "pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Philadelphia of 1776. This form of joy is not something you seek, but kept safe once it arrives, without having been sought after because we were too busy seeking the happiness of others. It should be kept as a precious gift, like the last sip of the last bottle of wine from your grandfather's cellar, like your wedding ring. It is not happiness, because this joy is not expressed with a plethora of smiles. Just one smile is more than enough, but when it blooms, it manages to pierce the sky enabling us to catch a glimpse of God.

Liturgy is a collective exercise in the safekeeping of joy. A community practice that ensures that joy will not be lacking in the community even when, individually, no one experiences it anymore, or does not yet experience it. Even during the days when no one guarded it, or found any reason to sing of joy, we arrive in the choir, open the book of Psalms, begin to sing, and joy is born right there out of the nothingness of our individual joys. Like all gifts, even liturgical joy may end up not being accepted; but, just like any gift, this refused gift nevertheless still remains a gift, it is right there, alive, and in a mysterious way, it works and changes things. This joy is a common good, of which no one is the master, no one produces it on his or her own, but it serves and loves everyone, and must therefore be safeguarded by everyone, if we wish it to continue to live on. Liturgy, then, is a multiplier of joy in the world, a device that ensures that the joy present every day is greater than the sum of the individual joys of both women and men. Liturgy, in particular the liturgy of the hours and the prayer of the Psalms, is the gift of a vicarious kind of joy; it is the manna of gladness when we have run out of bread in the desert. Another and different opus operatum that guarantees us a joyful presence in our communities even when, due to neglect or pain, we would not be individually capable of it. If we are faithful with our appointment with liturgy, its joy is faithful to its appointment with us, even when we welcome it with tears in our eyes.

There is a different kind of joy that can only come from a certain kind of poverty
The psalms and the prophets knew this well, and liturgy reminds us of it every day

This is the way it is been for millennia, and it will continue to be so, as long as a community capable of singing its joy remains on Earth, as long as there is a single man or woman left capable of singing a psalm. Because the Bible is not only the gift of a repertoire of words, offered to us when we have finished our own or have not yet found them, it is also a gift of joy not only replacing ours but multiplying it. The psalms of joy are always propitious, but their most propitious time is when we feel beggars for joy, when we are crossing a desert, when we would no longer find the strength to sing on our own. Oh, how much less happiness there would be in the world without the Psalms! «Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people. Let Israel rejoice in their Maker; let the people of Zion be glad in their King. Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp. For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory. Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor and sing for joy on their beds» (Psalm 149,1-5).

A new song. It is the hymn to joy, the penultimate of the five Songs of the Hallelujah that close the Psalter. A psalm written in all probability after the exile, when that "remnant" that had returned from Babylon had to relearn their faith in their God. And it began with joy, because after a long exile, faith can only be reborn: when exile ends there is no "going back" to the faith that was there before, you "move on". Israel had done everything in order not to lose its faith of the patriarchs, of Moses and of the prophets, but when the exiles returned to their homeland that ancient faith was only going to be able to generate a future by first being resurrected. Passions and Golgothas are not enough to continue living. It is not enough to remember, to safeguard the memories and the past: a new covenant, a new promise is needed. And therefore also a new source of joy, the first energy needed to restart, the first resource required when, after an exile, a new reason to continue the race is necessary.

This is why the voice of the so-called Third Isaiah can be heard so clearly in this psalm, the anonymous prophet who lived just after the Babylonian exile, the author of the last chapters (56-66) of the book of Isaiah, the great cantor of the new promise and of the resurrection of the people after exile. This prophet, monumental as a prophet and immense as a poet, did not celebrate joy and hope because he was unable to see the sins and evils of his present. Actually, he saw them quite clearly and denounced them in no uncertain terms. The exercise of the duty of joy however was stronger, because a prophet knows that without a new source of joy there is no restarting after any kind of exile. The author of these psalms of joy, perhaps a direct or indirect disciple of that great prophet, executed the same exercise, and sang the same song.

The prophets are hence the prime ministers of biblical joy, revealing its true nature and mystery to us. Telling us that this is a different kind of joy. When we think of Isaiah, Hosea or Jeremiah, we do not think of happy people or revelers. On the contrary, tradition and their texts offer us extremely solemn and serious images. Yet the prophets, all true prophets, are essentially the midwives of joy. Precisely in that they unmask the illusions of all, especially of communities in times of great crises, when a desperate need for joy becomes increasingly stronger, often invincible, becoming so desperate that the demand ends up generating the offer – regarding the false prophets, professional dispensers of a cheap, false kind of joy. True prophets do not offer us fake forms of joy they do not possess. They can only offer us the only true joy they know, the kind that arises during and after an exile, the kind that has nothing cheerful over it while still being fully joyful at the same time. Their promised land is the land of the yet-to-be, not because they are creators of utopic ideas but because they are, quite simply, true honest prophets. And a prophet is in fact an announcer of the yet-to-be, because no "land of the already here" can ever fully satisfy him or her fully, because every "already" is always smaller than the promise, which while originating in that small unsatisfactory "already", is loved precisely while it announces its yet-to-be.

A joy similar to that of Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, when after all the tragedies and wickedness of others the last scene is delivered to the music and to the different smile emerging on the lips of a poor and deceived woman, to celebrate the joy of live, to believe again, despite everything. The prophets tell us that we die a hundred times over, but that the ability to resurrect a hundred and one times is part of the human repertoire, and that the very last time it will in fact be another hand that will resurrect us - and then we will understand that that hand was present in our other hundred resurrections as well, and we did not know it: this is the most important "invisible hand" on earth.

Finally, Psalm 149 is a song of the poor, of the anawim or faithful remnant of YHWH. Among the many un-false joys of the Bible and of life, that of the poor is the most sublime and stupendous. It is a joy that we can still experience to this day, if we have the great gift of being friends with someone poor. The Holy Spirit - tradition tells us - is the "father of the poor". It is also their father because it nourishes them with a different kind of joy than we, who are not poor, have (even if we increasingly would like to become poor). This kind of joy is the closest to that announced by the Psalms, to the kind that needs the exiles, the kind of joy of those who know that sooner or later liberation will come, and that, perhaps, it has already begun.

During my lifetime, I have had the gift of attending psalms sung by various poor communities. If there is a paradise - and there must be - its songs and harmonies will be very similar to those I heard during those encounters. Where joy is not born because we are under the illusion that poverty will soon end, but because we truly feel loved and saved within that poverty. Poor people who know how to praise overcome the curse of poverty and even end up calling it "sister". And a liberation begins in that moment, sometimes from the curse of misery, it must however never become the liberation from joy, from the perfect contentment of poverty.

There is a kind of joy in the feasts and celebrations of the poor that the rich do not know, and this ignorance is one of their greatest poverties. Those who know and have lived with the poor have tasted that special kind of joy, and have never forgotten it: «This is the glory of all his faithful people. Praise the Lord» (Psalm 149,9).

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The soul and the harp/30 - True freedom is freeing oneself from misery, not from the «perfect joy» of poverty

 By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 25/10/2020

"The righteous, in whom the Lord has created the desperate need for joy, will have joy"

Sergio Quinzio, A commentary on the Bible (Un commento alla Bibbia)

There is a different form of joy that can only come from a certain kind of poverty. The psalms and the prophets know this well, and liturgy reminds us of it every day.

Joy is not only a desperate need in every human being; it is also a right. A right to joy that is not written in any kind of Constitutional Charter but in the soul of people. A fundamental right that must be defended especially during times of great crises, when it is threatened to the point of being denied. Every empire, not only the Egyptian one at the time of Moses, tries every once in a while to deny its subjects their right to feast and celebrate, because in order to kill hope in a different future, the temptation to deny the right to experience joy is too strong: it never completely succeeds, but it is always attempted insistently. However, there is also a duty to joy, and it is an essential one. Because when joy disappears in a community or society, hope and faith in life disappear right along with it. Sometimes there is more agape in safekeeping the ultimate joy than in loving pain, because a joy guarded by the increasing sadness of years and years and events is a collective good, a blessing for all, a tenacious announcement that we in fact are greater than our destiny.

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Midwives of a different kind of joy

Midwives of a different kind of joy

The soul and the harp/30 - True freedom is freeing oneself from misery, not from the «perfect joy» of poverty  By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 25/10/2020 "The righteous, in whom the Lord has created the desperate need for joy, will have joy" Sergio Quinzio, A commentary on the Bible (Un ...
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    [title] => With God's very own name
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The soul and the harp/29 - There are prayers that are also civil songs, songs of work, of time and of bread

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  18/10/2020

"The prohibition of images was a capital precept that would fatally be violated. First of all by YHWH himself, who had shaped man "in our image and in our likeness". YHWH had wanted to create a being in the image of himself - and the inclination to create something in the image of himself would also be transmitted to that being".

Roberto Calasso, The book of all books (Il libro di tutti i libri)

Names and images are central categories in the Bible and in Psalm 147, which reveals how poverty can generate wealth within this humanism.

In some Italian regions, among those my region, in certain intimate dialogues mothers and fathers call their sons and daughters with the same names usually used for them. Saying to them: "Come on, mom, be good", "Dad, you’re great." They talk to their children like this, but sometimes they keep calling them this even as adults. It is not something that you will find written in any grammar book; you will not learn this in school. We repeat it because we heard it from our parents, during the wonderful days of our childhood. Different words assimilated by osmosis, and then transmitted from one generation to another, part of that transmission of the essential things in life. They are among the most beautiful words found in the dialogues of the heart, in those delicate and private moments, which contain all that typical and unique tenderness that usually flows between parents and children, always nourishing both, above all, during moments of great joy and great pain.

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The Bible tells us that the first one who called us by his own name was and still is God, when he created us "in his image and likeness". By calling us, he spoke of himself, and he continues to repeat our name at every moment. Because if on the one hand the biblical God is the most transcendent and different divinity of all, on the other hand there is nothing on Earth that resembles him more than a human being, there is no heart more similar to his than ours, there is no name that sounds more like his than ours. The Hebrew Bible took away the image of God from us, but it gave us a wonderful image of man and woman instead: by hiding the face of God from us, it exalted our own. Hence, every time you love and respect the name of a man or a woman, you are loving and respecting God's name too; and, by the law of reciprocity, every time a man prays and praises the name of God, he is praying and praising the whole of humanity, every man and every woman.

This is the positive outlook that the Bible, with tenacity and resilience, has regarding men and women. It sees the limits, the sins, the murders and the fratricides, but first and above all, it sees the reflection of the image of God in it, unable to leave Eden. It sees the many gestures of men, but first it continues to see it in their dialogue with Elohim at the end of the day. Like the mothers and fathers who, even when life leads their children to do bad and nasty things, continue to think of them as pure and beautiful in order to save themselves and to save them, continuing to call them "dad" and "mom" until the end, even behind the walls of a prison. Between faith, hope and agape we find the same type of relationship that binds the three divine Beings: each one also containing the other two, each facing the others at the same time, it is impossible to separate them without destroying them all. The same thing happens in the Psalms, in which the more populated by feelings of sadness, disappointment and pain, the stronger and greater is their gaze of hope-faith-love that dominates the entire Psalter. Which makes it perhaps the most beautiful book of all, because it is the more capable one of speaking to us of heaven from the underworld, of hope in the midst of despair, of beauty in the midst of ugliness.

The strength of the Psalms lies in their truth. A real hell is preferable to a make-believe heaven, because as long as we call hell by its real name we can always wish for a heaven, which we would no longer want if we thought that we had already reached it: « Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him! The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds… Sing to the Lord with grateful praise; make music to our God on the harp» (Psalm 147,1-7). It is good to sing hymns to the Lord. It is beautiful and good to praise YHWH, it is beautiful and good for God, but it is also beautiful and good for us. The psalm begins with a praising of praises. It is the moment of self-awareness of the person praying, which arrives (if it arrives) when we realize that the first prize of praising is to become aware of its beauty and intrinsic gift. When we find that we pray to praise God, but as we sing, we feel that it is really God who is praising and singing to us. We say his name and one day we realize that it is God who is actually pronouncing ours, and that in saying our name he is saying everyone’s name, the name of every creature, the name of the stars and of the entire universe. And it is a wonder. And as we look for the finest and highest words and notes to praise God, we are learning the finest notes and words to praise one another as well. Perhaps there has never been a splendid word designed to praise God that a poet somewhere has not also used for a loved one, and perhaps there has never been a love poem that someone, on a different day, perhaps without really knowing it, used to sing to God. All this is also image and reciprocity. By blessing humans we also learned to bless God, and by blessing God we are already blessing men and women, even if we do not know it.

Being the image of the Creator immediately renders our praise to God a cosmic praise: «He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name… He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills. He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call» (Psalm 147,4;8-9). Being the image of Elohim makes us greater than our human image alone. We feel a deep cosmic fraternity from an early age, only children can truly feel cats and birds, flowers and leaves as brothers and sisters. We should be able not to lose it as we age. If life works out, this great fraternity should grows with us, ending with a song for our Sister Death. Inter-human fraternity is not enough, although already immense; it is much too small for us. For human brotherhood and sorority to become authentic humanism, we must learn to really feel the stars, the sun, the birds, the whole of nature as our brothers and sisters - there are few songs (if any) more biblical than the Canticle of Francis. Immensely beautiful and delicate, herein lies the reference to the «young cravens who call». In this verse we find the ravens that fed Elijah in his flight (1 Kings 17,6), but also the birds of the nest guarded by the Law of Moses, which commands not to capture the mother bird who is hatching her eggs and guarding her little ones, but to let her fly away, «So that it may go well with you and you may have a long life» (Deuteronomy 22,7). A Law of YHWH that also peers into a birds nest, placing thereby an equivalence that can appear both too bold and stupendous to us. The promise reserved for those who let the mother fly away without capturing her is the same promise in the Fourth Commandment, "Honour your father and your mother": «So that you may live long and that it may go well with you» (Deuteronomy 5,16).

In the Bible, everything is creation: everything is a child. This is how God sees the world, this is how he looks at us, and we, his image, learn to see the world in the same way, even if all creation is still «groaning as in the pains of childbirth», because it «waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed» (Romans 8,19-23). All creation groans and waits to be finally looked at and seen like this. Never as in these years of environmental crisis and destruction of the planet, have we been in a position to understand the Psalms and that mysterious passage from Paul to the Romans: the earth suffers and waits for men and women to finally reveal themselves for what they are, to behave as its children, and as the image of God the creator and father. Psalm 147 also distinguishes itself by being a civil song. There are neither priests nor kings, David is not mentioned and the temple is never alluded to. It is the citizens that raise their song, those who know the times and rhythms of the seasons and work, the value of peace and their daily bread. A psalm that has always been well loved by farmers: «He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes. He hurls down his hail like pebbles. Who can withstand his icy blast? He sends his word and melts them; he stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow» (Psalm 147,14-18). The entire earth is wrapped in a good, kind gaze, and everything is governed by providence.

After having given us thus far beautiful words about God and about us, the Psalm ends by directly praising the word, the Covenant and the Law, which are its culmination (147,19-20). The word is seen as a message sent for us, an intelligence that makes us discover the order and meaning of creation: «He sends his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly» (Psalm 147,15). The word is also logos, it is reasoning and order. Israel held the word to the highest esteem, to a degree that seems incomprehensible to us today. It lead to an extraordinary experience with the Patriarchs, with Moses and the prophets, «... there was only a voice» (Deuteronomy 4,12). Having given up the image of God, they gained immense competence in the word, they had to learn to draw God with words, and they discovered the thousand dimensions hidden within the biblical word, as well as in human words. A great poverty ended up producing an infinite wealth. Perhaps we would not have the extraordinary Western literary tradition that we have, without this biblical word deprived of images, which forced it to become an image without also becoming idolatry.

When John wrote the Prologue of his Gospel, one of the most brilliant passages in history, he had many things in mind, but he certainly thought of the words of the Psalms, of that logos capable of blessing man while he was blessing and praising God. Telling us that that logos was made flesh, that it became man like us, he told us many things, all of them marvellous, and he called us once again by the same name, the name of God. And he continues to call us this every day.

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The soul and the harp/29 - There are prayers that are also civil songs, songs of work, of time and of bread

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  18/10/2020

"The prohibition of images was a capital precept that would fatally be violated. First of all by YHWH himself, who had shaped man "in our image and in our likeness". YHWH had wanted to create a being in the image of himself - and the inclination to create something in the image of himself would also be transmitted to that being".

Roberto Calasso, The book of all books (Il libro di tutti i libri)

Names and images are central categories in the Bible and in Psalm 147, which reveals how poverty can generate wealth within this humanism.

In some Italian regions, among those my region, in certain intimate dialogues mothers and fathers call their sons and daughters with the same names usually used for them. Saying to them: "Come on, mom, be good", "Dad, you’re great." They talk to their children like this, but sometimes they keep calling them this even as adults. It is not something that you will find written in any grammar book; you will not learn this in school. We repeat it because we heard it from our parents, during the wonderful days of our childhood. Different words assimilated by osmosis, and then transmitted from one generation to another, part of that transmission of the essential things in life. They are among the most beautiful words found in the dialogues of the heart, in those delicate and private moments, which contain all that typical and unique tenderness that usually flows between parents and children, always nourishing both, above all, during moments of great joy and great pain.

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With God's very own name

With God's very own name

The soul and the harp/29 - There are prayers that are also civil songs, songs of work, of time and of bread By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire  18/10/2020 "The prohibition of images was a capital precept that would fatally be violated. First of all by YHWH himself, who had shaped man "...
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Greater than our heart
The soul and the harp/28 - From our inhabited intimacy we learn that the whole universe is inhabited by God

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  11/10/2020

"If there is an Other, whoever he is, wherever he is, and whatever his relations with me are, even if he does not act with regards to me in any other way than with the simple appearance of his being, I have an outside, a nature; my original sin is the existence of the other".

Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Psalm 139 is a great poetic message on the essence of faith and on the mystery of the person, who when discovering itself being watched comes to understand a deeper and greater kind of beauty.

There is a secret and very deep place within the soul where a subtle and delicate melancholy lives. It is what emerges when we realize that even communion with those who love us stops at the door of a secret intimacy, the one where the most beautiful and true part of us is found. We know that our friends, parents, wife, children, really love us and really know us, but the loving knowledge they have of us cannot reach the inner wine cellar of our heart. Only if they managed to reach it would they truly know us, because they would then see an unknown beauty, if someone could reach us in that depth they would understand that we are better than we appear, that we are even more beautiful than the person they have known so far. If it is true that the other is "the one who looks at me" (J.P. Sartre), it is even more so that the other never looks at us enough, and does not see the best part of us. Others know something, some even know what is essential, but what is essential is not enough for us, when it comes to these things, the essential is not enough.

[fulltext] =>

This is also where our innocence lives. In those depths of the depth of our soul there is an invisible purity, the one that we lost while growing up but was never truly erased even by the greatest of errors, the one that believes in us when no one believes in us anymore (starting with ourselves). It is the garden of the Adam that we still are, it is the Indians' hut, which we built as children and where we took refuge when escaping from ghosts, it is our dollhouse. And we return to that small house, which has been growing smaller and smaller while we were growing up, during the dark days of our life, when we feel chased and condemned by everyone but we know that there is a better corner of the universe than man and woman that others can see. This invisible refuge is what makes life possible while in exile, in prison, in great sin. Then one day we understand that this gap between what we really are and what others recognize will always remain unbridgeable, and that that most intimate beauty will be the secret and the gift that we will bring to our very last appointment. Hence, a new kind of peace is born, a new reconciliation with life and with others, and we stop complaining for never being loved enough. Because we understand that it is the very existence of this core of beauty, protected by the gaze of others, that makes the experience of reciprocity and recognition always insufficient. We must always ask a lot of the reciprocity in our life, but we must not ask too much.

The Bible did not know about the unconscious or about psychoanalysis, and it did not know, unlike us, that a great variety of different things is accumulated in that hidden corner. It knew men and women, however, and it knew God. And so, it told us something important, which remains true even now that we have come to know the other invisible "inhabitants" of our intimacy. It told us and continues to tell us that that unexplored land is inhabited by a good guest, who has always lived there, who knows it better than we think that we know it. It tells us that that certainty of being better than we have become is all love, it is God's first gift to us, the device with which he continues to save us every day: «You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain» (Psalm 139,1-6).

The knowledge mentioned in this Psalm, one of the highest and most poetic of the Psalter, does not concern an abstract knowledge or omniscience of God. The "wonderful" knowledge that interests the psalmist here is the knowledge that God has of us, that he has of the author of the psalm himself, that he has of me, and of you. It is the experience of being known by a friend, a deeper gaze than that of any other, friendlier and deeper than our own gaze: "inaccessible to me". A deep root of biblical faith is being given to us here. Faith is first of all the experience of being seen from within, of being at the centre of a good kind of intelligence. I am loved because I am looked at, loved while I am looked into that depth where my mystery resides. Hence, before being a set of norms and truths in which to believe, biblical faith is the personal experience of that profound gaze. Religion can begin with worship and with the law, but faith begins when one feels looked upon, seen and called upon by name.

Man has always sensed that he was watched by God and his spirits, that he lived under an invisible gaze from above. Generally, however, it was a distressing experience. Ancient man was afraid of the gaze of the gods. He hid himself, wanting to escape it, because being seen was also the experience of the unveiling of his sins and therefore of guilt. It was the gaze of a judge, the eyes of those who want to see us in order to condemn us. "God sees you" was an instrument of fear and terror. The Bible also brings about a revolution here. God's gaze is first of all a gaze of love, it is liberation and joy. God also sees sins, but first of all he sees that we are children; he sees the gesture of Cain, but first he sees the gesture of Elohim who created Adam in his image and likeness. Here lies the biblical anthropology of Adam's primacy over Cain, because Adam lives in a corner of the heart that is more intimate than the one where his fratricidal son resides. Starting from this inhabited intimacy, we learn that the entire universe is supported and inhabited by God, as well: the starry sky inside me enables me to see the starry sky above me. An experience that immediately turns into song: «If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you» (Psalm 139,8-12). Amazing!

If the encounter with God is being seen inside, from within, then that gaze was there even before we knew about it. It was there, invisible, but always present: «For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be» (Psalm 139,13-16). Verses that closely recall those of Job, but also the "bones" of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20,9) and the story of his prophetic vocation. Faith begins in just one day, but it has really always been there. One day you become aware of something that pre-existed that consciousness that emerges at a precise moment, when you understand that the sentence we are writing on that day is part of a "book". One of the greatest gifts that the gift of faith brings with it, in the dimension explained by Psalm 139, faith is truly and authentically a gift, even before being a virtue (if only to protect it), is that admirable exercise that follows the beginning of faith. When we go back in our history and, as with an old photo album, we leaf through page after page of our past and finally understand it; we understand the same photos of yesterday that now light up with immensity, differently. Those who believe have always believed, they just did not know it.

And so, in these verses we also find a splendid synthesis of what a vocation truly is. In the beginning there is a gaze, feeling seen by an eye that looks at me and sees me as no one has ever seen me before. A gaze that immediately becomes a voice, because while he looks at us he pronounces our name, reveals our mission and our place in the world, makes us glimpse and see that the episodes that have marked our life have a meaning; they are the chapters of the "book” that we were already writing, but we did not know it. It is at this intimate and deep level that the destiny of a vocation is at stake. It is not a matter of happiness or unhappiness, (the Bible and life itself are filled with unhappy and yet immense vocations). Nor of cost-benefit calculations (which currency should we use?), nor much less, of being in the subjective and objective conditions of being able to succeed in the task, (most authentic vocations are not "successful", they are stories of failure). In these vocations, a person does only and simply what he or she is, what he or she saw while being seen, what he or she discovers he or she has always been and will be: «Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there» (Psalm 139,8). This is not a fatalistic or static view, as it would be if the role of the person were only to interpret an already written and ready score - without even the executive freedom of a jazz score. A vocation moves between maximum freedom - because there is no greater freedom than those who obey the truest and most beautiful part of themselves - and maximum non-freedom, because that gaze follows us everywhere and reminds us every moment who and what we really are. You can leave a community or leave a wife, but you cannot leave the action of that gaze.

The impossibility of getting out of the scope of God's pupils offers no guarantee that we will not make bad, sometimes dreadful choices. The good news of the Bible is another: even if you make "your bed in the depths" to escape from yourself, there too you continue to be watched and seen. And every time you "arise on the wings of the dawn" to flee far away, wherever that crazy flight may take you, when you touch your most intimate intimacy there will be someone there waiting for you and reminding you that you too are greater than your heart.

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Greater than our heart
The soul and the harp/28 - From our inhabited intimacy we learn that the whole universe is inhabited by God

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  11/10/2020

"If there is an Other, whoever he is, wherever he is, and whatever his relations with me are, even if he does not act with regards to me in any other way than with the simple appearance of his being, I have an outside, a nature; my original sin is the existence of the other".

Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Psalm 139 is a great poetic message on the essence of faith and on the mystery of the person, who when discovering itself being watched comes to understand a deeper and greater kind of beauty.

There is a secret and very deep place within the soul where a subtle and delicate melancholy lives. It is what emerges when we realize that even communion with those who love us stops at the door of a secret intimacy, the one where the most beautiful and true part of us is found. We know that our friends, parents, wife, children, really love us and really know us, but the loving knowledge they have of us cannot reach the inner wine cellar of our heart. Only if they managed to reach it would they truly know us, because they would then see an unknown beauty, if someone could reach us in that depth they would understand that we are better than we appear, that we are even more beautiful than the person they have known so far. If it is true that the other is "the one who looks at me" (J.P. Sartre), it is even more so that the other never looks at us enough, and does not see the best part of us. Others know something, some even know what is essential, but what is essential is not enough for us, when it comes to these things, the essential is not enough.

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Greater than our heart

Greater than our heart

Greater than our heart The soul and the harp/28 - From our inhabited intimacy we learn that the whole universe is inhabited by God By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire  11/10/2020 "If there is an Other, whoever he is, wherever he is, and whatever his relations with me are, even if he doe...
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The soul and the harp/27 - We return from exile and leave our mourning behind us when we find our voice again.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 04/10/2020

"However great the pain of a loss may be, the task of avoiding the most irreparable and decisive loss is immediately imposed on us: that of losing ourselves. Therefore, when facing the death of a loved one, we are peremptorily called to become the procurators of death for that very same death".

Ernesto de Martino, Death and ritual crying in the ancient world (Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico)

Psalm 137, the psalm about the exiles, delivers a great message on how and why to take those ancient harps into our hands again with renewed feeling.

Our age is part of a long eclipse of places, and therefore of the sense of earth. With this progressive disenchantment of the world, we have not only stopped believing that the earth was full of gods, we have also forgotten that places have a soul, different but no less alive and effective than the soul found in people. We invented space, the anonymous and rational space of maps, and thus we forgot to recognize places through their unique vocations, their signs, their own destiny. In the Bible, God is a voice that speaks within places. God is not u-topical, because he has his place: an altar, a mountain, a temple. Places that can never really capture God, (who remains free of ours and his own places), but keep the stigmata of his touch forever. Biblical man could be nomadic and wandering because his territory was marked by the true presence of God, hence even if he was a pilgrim he was never lost. Time and space are often enemies; places, however, are often friends of time, because they are where it can be found - within a community, in a family, in that land - where each generation passes on life to the next. Moreover, common goods can never be destroyed, if they go from taking up space to becoming a place.

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Having long forgotten the language of space and places, we do not understand what exile really means in the Bible. To understand some of its dimensions, we must compare it to another extreme experience of ours: mourning. Because the crisis of presence is part of both the Babylonian exile and the process mourning. In great moments of mourning we experience a sense of uprooting, we are emptied of our certainties and values ​​until we too risk passing with those who have passed, dying with those who have died. The great challenge during the Babylonian exile was to succeed in not dying together with the homeland, with the destroyed temple, with the Promised Land, with their defeated God. It is no wonder then that Ezekiel in his book calls his deceased wife and the destroyed city of Jerusalem by the same name - "the delight of my eyes".

The process of elaborating a great loss, (a very difficult operation today), is to not to let our loved ones exit our lives completely, while also avoiding that their continuing to live in us does not lead to the beginning of our death as well. For Israel, elaborating the experience of exile was in essence the great undertaking of not forgetting Zion, while not reminiscing too much about and hence risk dying with it: «By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps » (Psalm 137,1-2). It is the wonderful psalm of the refugee or exile, perhaps the most beautiful elegy in the Bible. The psalm that more than any other directly tells us the collective spiritual and ethical process with which Israel tried to make sense of its greatest tragedy, in order to continue living.

The first image that reaches us is that of musicians on a strike of sorts, perhaps a group of former temple singers. They hung their harps on the branches of the willows (or poplars) that grew along the fertile banks of the rivers of Babylon. There they sat together, and together they cried. Then, one day, they stopped singing. A choral fast of artists, perhaps the first in human history. Perhaps this is why Psalm 137 has always been beloved by artists, musicians and poets alike (from Camoes to Verdi, from Bach to Quasimodo). It cannot be sung while in an "unknown land" – adamah nekhar. One can only intone a funeral cry, raise a ritual lament, or scream desperate words trying to sublimate them within a sacred representation, in such a land (Psalm 137,7-9). Singing the songs of the temple, however, no, it is not possible: it is not possible when in the wrong land. And so, came the answer of those singers, loud and clear: we cannot. «How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?» (Psalm 137,4). Because in that humanism the first singer and musician are constituted by the walls of the temple, then the homeland, and only at the end do men and their instruments come in. Those songs can only be sung in Zion, and will only be sung again when returning there. Certain "leaps" can only be made in "Rhodes".

The psalm then introduces us to a typical kind of human cynicism and sarcasm: «For there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”» (Psalm 137,3). There is a typical form of malice, among the worst possible, in forcing those in mourning to make others laugh - sarcasm literally means "tearing the flesh" sarx. Just as the Philistines did: «While they were in high spirits, they shouted, “Bring out Samson to entertain us!”» (Judges 16,25) – as the powerful have always done and continue to do with the poor, with women, with their victims. During that fast of the arts, the people, together, relived the same experience Ezekiel had lived, the great prophet of exile: «He spoke to me and said: "I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent"» (Ezekiel 3,26). Ezekiel, a priest without a temple, a prophet without words; singers and musicians with mute harps left hanging. Tremendous and wondrous images that say so much, almost everything, about the grammar of life of those who honestly follow a voice.

At this point, we find an oath or a form of self-curse in the psalm: «If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy» (Psalm 137,5-6). Those refugees were terrified of the possibility of forgetting Jerusalem and their God. They were terrified because they felt the fascination of the gods of those rivers of Babylon, they felt in their flesh the temptation to lend their harps to songs different from those learned in Zion. Hence, they bound themselves to a promise, made to God and with their soul. Promises are also the rope that binds what we are today to what we were yesterday, in order to save what we can become tomorrow from the precipice. Every promise is a prayer that asks the future not to betray its origin. When life leads us into exile, at first we just want to hang up our harp, throw away the pen, keep quiet, and just cry and mourn. The Bible tells us that these fasts are actually good, that even these mutations are words of life. We feel disoriented, uprooted, estranged, filled with an infinite "nostalgia for Zion" and for that wonderful temple within and among us, and above all, with an infinite nostalgia for the God who no longer exists because he has been destroyed - by others, by us, by God himself. We only want to sit and raise loud laments to heaven and life. This phase can take a long time. For some it lasts a lifetime, and they never return home.

Sometimes, a remnant, a small remnant - a minor part of that destroyed community or a corner of it, still alive somewhere in our wounded soul – picks up the harp again one day, and a new song begins. It begins there, along the same rivers, surrounded by the same torturers and executioners. We do not know why, we just know that we have to sing. We can sing the same songs of our youth, and understand that that voice that accompanied us during the destruction and then into exile, that unknown voice, feared as the voice of an idol or of nothingness, was actually the same good voice that spoke in Sion, but we did not know it. A new understanding that is all grace, all gratuitousness. We understands that God is not afraid of exile, and that there is no better place than the rivers of Babylon to sing and praise. And to the question: "How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?", comes a new answer: sing them exactly as you sang them in Zion: I live here too, and I have never left you alone. The end of exile has begun.

For some, this new psalm is the very last song, sung together with the angel of death. Others have been singing it for many years but are not aware yet because they confuse it with mourning. Not all Jewish exiles returned from Babylon after the edict of Cyrus. Some never got over that great grief, and let themselves die. Some integrated with the Babylonians, and never returned. Only the children and grandchildren of those few who managed to retrieve their harps from the poplars along the rivers to sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land, returned after seventy years. Those who learned how to play while in exile returned. All mourning really ends when we discover that we are still able to sing. The most beautiful psalms of Israel were composed when one of those exiled singers found the spiritual energy to pick up his harp again. They retrieved them from the branches of the trees and began their singing again. Those who learn to sing the ancient songs in a new unknown land return from exile. When a new soul plays the ancient harp and other new songs are born.

There are spiritual songs, poems, works of art, prophecies, that are born in times of joy and light that flow as an excess of the heart during the beautiful days of our lives, when we are masters of our own hands and our words, obeying us in creation. These can be authentic works of art, beautiful music, true poems, and authentic prophecies. However, there are other spiritual songs, other works of art, different prophecies, which are not born like this at all. Instead, they need a throat glued to the palate, harps limply hanging from poplars, hands with arthritis, composers suffering from deafness, blind painters, spastic and stammering speakers, writers who speak of God when they no longer know who he is or if he really exists. These different works of art are not the fruit of our strength but of our weakness, these words do not obey us because they are free, these gestures are not our gestures, this God is not our God, this paradise is for others. These are the works of gratuitousness, the songs that should not exist, the spirituality that moves heaven, humans that can touch the angels. We have the Bible because someone was able to sing while in exile, he learned to play his harp again along the rivers of Babylon. And he never stopped.

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The soul and the harp/27 - We return from exile and leave our mourning behind us when we find our voice again.

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 04/10/2020

"However great the pain of a loss may be, the task of avoiding the most irreparable and decisive loss is immediately imposed on us: that of losing ourselves. Therefore, when facing the death of a loved one, we are peremptorily called to become the procurators of death for that very same death".

Ernesto de Martino, Death and ritual crying in the ancient world (Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico)

Psalm 137, the psalm about the exiles, delivers a great message on how and why to take those ancient harps into our hands again with renewed feeling.

Our age is part of a long eclipse of places, and therefore of the sense of earth. With this progressive disenchantment of the world, we have not only stopped believing that the earth was full of gods, we have also forgotten that places have a soul, different but no less alive and effective than the soul found in people. We invented space, the anonymous and rational space of maps, and thus we forgot to recognize places through their unique vocations, their signs, their own destiny. In the Bible, God is a voice that speaks within places. God is not u-topical, because he has his place: an altar, a mountain, a temple. Places that can never really capture God, (who remains free of ours and his own places), but keep the stigmata of his touch forever. Biblical man could be nomadic and wandering because his territory was marked by the true presence of God, hence even if he was a pilgrim he was never lost. Time and space are often enemies; places, however, are often friends of time, because they are where it can be found - within a community, in a family, in that land - where each generation passes on life to the next. Moreover, common goods can never be destroyed, if they go from taking up space to becoming a place.

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And the song gave way to life again

And the song gave way to life again

The soul and the harp/27 - We return from exile and leave our mourning behind us when we find our voice again. By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 04/10/2020 "However great the pain of a loss may be, the task of avoiding the most irreparable and decisive loss is immediately imposed on us: tha...
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The soul and the harp/26 - There is also a good form of wasting of time and things, for the sake great and true relationships

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  27/09/2020

"Maximum restoring and relief came to me from the comfort of my friends ... the talks, laughing together, the exchange of affectionate courtesies, the occasional disagreements, without rancour, like every man has with himself, and the more frequent agreements, untainted by the same very rare disagreements; being each other's sometimes teacher, sometimes disciple, the impatient nostalgia of those who find themselves far away, the festive welcome offered to those who return".

Augustine, Confessions, IV

Psalm 133 is known as the psalm of fraternity, which while it speaks to us of the beauty of the fraternity of blood tells us of a different kind of fraternity of the spirit.

Fraternity is a great word of the Bible because it is a great word of life. It is simply another name for happiness. Brothers and sisters are part of the ordinary landscape of home. They are an essential component of our life. The love for a brother or a sister does not have any connotation of Eros or of philia (we may not always be friends with our brothers or sisters, yet we love them very much). It is another kind of love, different and special, which uses the language of flesh and guts (and thus resembles our love for our parents). A typical note of fraternity is that visceral pain we feel when a sister or a brother falls ill, when he or she suffers, when he or she is offended or humiliated - seeing a sister suffer is one of the greatest pains we males can experience. There is, moreover, a typical and very special kind of joy involved, perhaps one of the greatest on earth. This is what parents, especially mothers, feel when they see that their children love each other. When they see them esteem each other, bless each other, console each other, defend each other, help each other, and celebrate together.

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It is not surprising then, that in order to express Job's greatest blessing of happiness, the Bible should speak of his sons and daughters eating together: «His sons used to hold feasts in their homes on their birthdays, and they would invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them» (Job 1,4). The reference to the sisters is important here, because if it is already nice enough to find yourself celebrating among brothers, it is downright wonderful to find yourself between brothers and sisters, when girls and women with their typical grace enhance the charis and the feast in a home. This typical joy for the harmony of children increases with the years, because if it is nice to see your children and young people love each other, and it is even more beautiful to see them love each other as adults, when distances and reasons for disagreements and divisions naturally grow. Perhaps there is no more beautiful end-of-life for a parent than seeing daughters and sons who have truly cherished their mutual love; how great that love is, taking on all the different tones and shades of agape. The love of a child who would prefer to give up his or her own personal legitimate interests just to avoid this special suffering for his or her parents.

Hence, we can easily imagine that the beautiful Psalm 133 was composed, or at least sung, by a mother. On a feast day, perhaps on the evening of Pesach, a woman looked at her children sitting around the table, and in the depths of her heart this prayer was born, one of the most beautiful prayers there are: «Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!» (Psalm 133,1). The psalm of fraternity. The Hebrew word that the psalmist uses to describe this special beauty and sweetness is twb, the same word we find in the first chapter of Genesis when creation was completed: "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good (twb)" (Genesis 1,31). Perhaps to tell us that when brothers and sisters "sit together" the family returns to stroll in the Garden of Eden, a certain primal innocence and purity returns, death is overcome again, we eat the fruit of the tree of life and we live an eternal youth - as long as someone calls us "son" or "daughter" we will always be young. The two metaphors that the psalm uses to develop the theme of fraternity are very beautiful indeed and deeply rooted in biblical language and symbolism: «It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion» (Psalm 133,2-3). The oil was a sign of the consecration of priests (Aaron), but also of kings, of prophets, and it was the gesture that welcomed the arrival of a guest, who was honoured by having his weary body anointed with scented oil. An overflowing of oil that drips from the head to cover the face, the beard and then continues down the robe.

An image that speaks of the surplus or excess of fraternity. Fraternity is the opposite of avarice, if you do not hand your brother a cloak, he is handed a tunic either, because it is what we do not have to give and instead chose to give anyway that expresses what a brother or sister truly is. It is the oil that a woman poured on Jesus' feet, which was worth ten times more than the price of betrayal. An economist would never understand this waste, and would instead continue to blame the inefficient excess. There are no interest bearing loans among brothers, not even at the inflation rate needed to, at the very least, recover the expenses. One simply gives to a brother: lending is a good business verb but it is not a verb of fraternity - "here is the money you needed: you will give it back to me when and if you can". A brother has the same dignity of a king, a priest or a prophet, not an ounce less; and when he comes to visit us at home we must honour him as guests are honoured in the Bible. As Abraham and Sarah welcomed the three men at the Oak of Mamre, as Solomon welcomed the Queen of Sheba, as the good shepherd of Psalm 23, as the two sisters welcomed Jesus in Bethany. Like the widow who hosted Elijah in her house and gave the prophet the last handful of flour and the last drop of oil she had left. Prophets and brothers, and sisters are not given what is superfluous, they are given what is necessary, for them you would go amiss of your last bread. Our daily bread is a gift from the Father, but it almost always arrives at the hands of a brother, or a sister. When we leave our common home as grownups and a brother comes to visit our new home, you should honour him as the Bible honours its guests. And even if he comes to visit often, the day of his visit is the day of bringing out the most beautiful tablecloth, of setting new flowers. Time stops, touching eternity. The hours spent with your brothers and sisters last longer, fraternity extends our life. All guests are a blessing, but the blessings that brothers and sisters bring, honoured as angels, are infinite.

The second image is that of dew, another beloved word from the Bible. The dew of the highest mountain that mitigates the long droughts. It is always surprising to find grass wet with dew upon waking up during our torrid summers, a gift of a different kind of freshness when there is no water. Dew is a great image of gratuitousness, a gift that is there for us, for everyone. Like dew, fraternity needs a clear and calm windy night in order to light up the field of our lives. Like dew, fraternity is that given freshness that accompanies the aridity of life, arriving without giving a second glance at our virtues and merits. Fraternity is anti-meritocratic, both when it is looked at from the perspective of the parents, and when it is observed with the gaze of your other brothers and sister - even if the elder brother in the parable is there to remind us that meritocracy is a temptation and threat to fraternity, that if not overcome every day generates various forms of fratricide.

The oil dripping from Aaron's beard then reveals another fundamental element of fraternity, which is the other side of the surplus: a good kind of waste. As with other first words of life, there are two sides to the word waste, a good and a bad side. The good one belongs to fraternity, which also thrives on waste: the passing of time, words, food. The waste of time drives away haste, the enemy of all primary relationships. The waste of words is the blessing of endless evenings and nights spent saying with a hundred words what we could say with only ten, because those wasted ninety words in excess are the words that we give to each other when freed from the slavery of efficiency. Moreover, there is no family celebration where food does not exceed what is necessary, where what seems a waste is only the celebration of a greater good, an archaic and deeply profound language to say that those hours spent together are worth more than the national GDP, that this relational good is the greatest form of good. In fraternal meals, if you do not eat too much, you just have not eaten enough. And even when poverty offers us only five loaves of bread and a couple of fish, eventually we will still have to take home seven stores of leftovers.
Yet, despite all this beauty, the Bible presents us with natural brotherhood as something ambivalent, and generally problematic. Abel, the first brother is a murdered brother. Jacob and Esau fight, battle and separate, then Leah and Rachel, the two rival sisters, then the story of Joseph sold by his brothers, Jephthah chased away by his half-brothers, Amnon's violence on Tamar, up until the brother of the prodigal son. In the Bible, the cases of brothers and sisters who love each other like those of Psalm 133 are few and far between. Perhaps to tell us that the brotherhood of blood, however great and often wonderful it can be, is not enough to understand biblical humanism, the new people, the Covenant, and the new and different universal biblical and then Christian brotherhood. Therefore, in order to show us its new brotherhood not connected by blood, the Bible is not content with praising natural brotherhood, and instead highlights its insufficiency. We too know that that first natural fraternity will never be full and true humanism if it does not eventually flourish into a second kind of fraternity. One does not remain brothers and sisters for life if at a certain point that bond of blood, already great and beautiful, does not become even greater and more beautiful, blooming into agape.

Brothers and sisters remain brothers and sisters until the end, if one day they also become friends, and mother and father of each other. Fraternity is dawn; it is dew, but that sun will not be able to keep all the light of dawn shining all thru noon, if the blood does not also become spirit, and if we are not reborn in this spirit. The Bible, however, also wanted to give us Psalm 133 with its splendid words because, while it reminds us that fraternity is fulfilled by dying in the flesh and rising in the spirit, those brothers and sisters sitting together are among the most beautiful things under the sun: «For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore» (Psalm 133,3).

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The soul and the harp/26 - There is also a good form of wasting of time and things, for the sake great and true relationships

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  27/09/2020

"Maximum restoring and relief came to me from the comfort of my friends ... the talks, laughing together, the exchange of affectionate courtesies, the occasional disagreements, without rancour, like every man has with himself, and the more frequent agreements, untainted by the same very rare disagreements; being each other's sometimes teacher, sometimes disciple, the impatient nostalgia of those who find themselves far away, the festive welcome offered to those who return".

Augustine, Confessions, IV

Psalm 133 is known as the psalm of fraternity, which while it speaks to us of the beauty of the fraternity of blood tells us of a different kind of fraternity of the spirit.

Fraternity is a great word of the Bible because it is a great word of life. It is simply another name for happiness. Brothers and sisters are part of the ordinary landscape of home. They are an essential component of our life. The love for a brother or a sister does not have any connotation of Eros or of philia (we may not always be friends with our brothers or sisters, yet we love them very much). It is another kind of love, different and special, which uses the language of flesh and guts (and thus resembles our love for our parents). A typical note of fraternity is that visceral pain we feel when a sister or a brother falls ill, when he or she suffers, when he or she is offended or humiliated - seeing a sister suffer is one of the greatest pains we males can experience. There is, moreover, a typical and very special kind of joy involved, perhaps one of the greatest on earth. This is what parents, especially mothers, feel when they see that their children love each other. When they see them esteem each other, bless each other, console each other, defend each other, help each other, and celebrate together.

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Like perfume and dew

Like perfume and dew

The soul and the harp/26 - There is also a good form of wasting of time and things, for the sake great and true relationships By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire  27/09/2020 "Maximum restoring and relief came to me from the comfort of my friends ... the talks, laughing together, the exc...
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The soul and the harp/25 - Wealth and talents serve to free those who have been at the receiving end of suffering and evil

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 20/09/2020

"They are the "children of youth" because those who were destined to die between the ages of twenty-five and thirty had to hurry to procreate. A poor prize, from the desert and spears around the house. For a philosopher, both yesterday and today, it was nothing more than nails in the flesh"

Guido Ceronetti, The book of psalms

Is it possible to associate God with our blessings and save him from the curses of others? To thank him for our happiness while not condemning him for our misery?

Excess is one of the golden laws of life. She is the mother of generativity, the sister of generosity. We do not bear fruit without first sowing with large generous hands, without throwing a large part of the good seed among the thorns, along the road and among the rocks, because if we wanted to sow only in what we think to be good soil, nothing really good would be born. Good soil can only exist between brambles and rocks, and is ultimately reached by those who are willing to waste plenty of seed in their excessive throws. In order to be able to hope that a true prophet will be born in our community we must first generate ten false ones, to have an excellent student we must allow him to grow alongside a thousand ordinary ones, to generate an act of agape we must wait for it while it matures mixed with our own selfishness. That wasted part is as necessary as the much smaller part it eventually will generate. All avarice is sterile, all magnanimities are fruitful.

[fulltext] =>

Nevertheless, the most important form of excess is not the one that comes out of our heart, but the one that enters it. It is what we receive, not what we give, it is what we see happening within us and around us, that bread that nourishes both our friends and us "while we sleep". Then one day, we finally understand that the most beautiful things that have blessed our life are not the fruit of our commitment or efforts, but solely gifts, only and truly grace, only and always providence. Intelligence, decisive talents, wife or husband, daughters and sons, friends, community, health, sense and joy for our interior life, being able to be moved by a poem ... did not enter our life for some merit of ours: they simply found us on the trail of a mysterious freedom made out of love. Being "good soil" is not a merit of ours - the soil does not cultivate, care for or fertilize itself. It simply is. And that is the first root of gratitude.

This excess is the heart of Psalms 127 and 128, which find themselves at the very centre of the series (from 120 to 134) called "the pilgrim": «Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain. In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat - for he grants sleep to those he loves» (Psalm 127,1-2). In these well-known and beautiful verses, the psalmist affirms the priority of the excess of grace over our merits. This incipit, this succession of "in vain" which reminds us so much of Ecclesiastes, (a book that the Bible, like Psalm 127, attributes to Solomon), is one of the most beautiful explanations of what gratuitousness/grace is. To understand this we must continue reading the second part of Psalm 127 and then continue with 128: «Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them» (Psalm 127, 3-5).

Here, the great biblical category of blessing further developed in the next psalm, returns: «Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him. You will eat the fruit of your labour; blessings and prosperity will be yours. Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Yes, this will be the blessing for the man who fears the Lord» (Psalm 128, 1-4). Biblical happiness, unlike the modern tradition that largely tends to associate happiness with pleasure and sensations, refers to fertility and generativity, concepts that are also very much present in the Latin felicitas (in which the prefix fe associates it with foetus, female, fertile). However, there is much more to be found in these two Psalms. There is a fundamental theological idea of ​​the Bible, according to which happiness, and therefore goods and children, are the blessing of God. This equivalence between earthly happiness and divine blessing is not only fundamental and central to the ethics and spirit of modern economy, but it is also at the centre of common sense and the wisdom of many communities and families - Psalm 128 is the most commonly read psalm in both Jewish and Christian marriage liturgy.

However, it is precisely in this splendid series of beatitudes that many of the pitfalls that are still at the heart of Western humanism remain hidden. Too often, in fact, we have read, and continue to read, these two psalms in an amputated version made of the first two verses of 127, and thus the whole argument on blessings ends up falsified and corrupted. We can speak of goods as a blessing in the Bible, because first we have the moral certainty that goods are in fact at a much deeper level a gift. Saying that those who "built the house" are not really the builders but "the Lord", means recognizing that even in the most concrete and everyday things, where it is evident that although we are adding brick by brick with our own hard work, at a deeper and therefore truer level those bricks and that sweat are also made of grace, they are providence. And here we must reopen a never concluded discussion on merits and grace. When we see someone who is successful, in one shape or another, it is very rare that we do not recognize at least a certain amount of personal merit in that success. Hence, while attributing part of it to luck and favourable circumstances, we take the part attributed to personal credit present in that success and make it the pillar with which to support the entire social reward structure. And then, for the sake of symmetry, we follow up with the same logic for failures and defeat since, although there is always a certain amount of bad luck and unfavourable circumstances behind any crime or misfortune, there must be a least some percentage of subjective guilt as well. We isolate it and make it the main criterion for ordering both punishments and the world. It is also possible that human beings feel the need for a system of guilt to be able to legitimize merits, because in a world where misfortunes are considered to depend too much on unfavourable circumstances and too little on subjective guilt, there would be no ethical bases for attributing our successes to our own merit either.

However, this is precisely where the first two verses of Psalm 127 suddenly turn terribly serious. Take the case of Giovanni, that particularly brilliant fellow economist. He had an excellent career, achieved success and wealth. He came from a poor family and had to study a lot for his degree and then his doctorate. His parents made sacrifices to enable him to study, first in Italy then in the US. He has won a large number of competitions always proving himself to be the best ... It is hard to deny that merit constitutes a good or large part of his success. Then, however, we take a closer look and we discover that even this linear and generally non-controversial reasoning can become complicated and perhaps largely change. We realize that Giovanni was born into a family that loved him, he studied for free for over twenty years, he had excellent teachers who believed in him, and he grew up in a peaceful and stimulating environment. And if he studied hard to win competitions and write scientific articles, his ability to study and to commit himself was also in large part a gift, because he found it within, as part and the result of all that excess life. People are also born and become poor because they lack any opportunities to be able to apply themselves, commit and make the effort.

If Giovanni had grown up elsewhere, that same DNA would not have had the conditions to study hard and be as successful. All this is not to diminish, humiliate or devalue Giovanni's talent and virtue at all, but to emphasize that first there was something else, an excess that created his "home" for and with him and, even long before that, his very talents. When we forget this invisible builder - and we do so increasingly today – a series of theologies, sociologies and economies of prosperity tend to spring up too quickly which, while they ethically and religiously praise and legitimize success and merits, religiously also tend to delegitimize the losers, reading non-talents as non-merits, to the point of morally justifying inequality. To be able to call the victors blessed they must also call the poor cursed. We cannot stop there, however. This discussion has not fully satisfied us yet. My granddaughter Antoinette made me see this with her essential form of theology while we said our prayers before lunch: "We thank God for food, but how do children who do not have any food pray?" Thanking God and life for our blessings that we received as gifts not due to merit, is not enough to justify God in the face of those who do not have access to any of those goods. Every religious man who attributes his blessings to God tends (almost) inevitably to separate God from the cursed part of the world. "My mother forced me into prostitution since I was eight years old: if I ever meet God I want to spit in his face", a young Brazilian woman once said desperately to a missionary friend of mine. If I associate the grace of God with my gifts, how can I save him from the misfortunes of others?

A certain kind of honest atheism was born because it could not find a convincing answer to this very question, and preferred to kill God in order to save the poor. Someone else managed to save his or her faith, while reading these psalms sitting on the dung heap next to Job or on the Golgotha ​​under the crucifix. Then, one day, which somehow always seems to arrive too late, he understood that his true blessing is finally understanding that he received those riches and talents to use them to free those who instead have been at the receiving end of nothing but suffering and evil. An irrepressible need was born inside of him to go down to the streets and under the arcades to offer and serve breakfast, to try to generate some true "thanks" after too many uttered swearwords. And, as it becomes an inherent gift, say to the poor: you are not cursed. Say it, repeat it, and never stop, to the point of giving life.
Dedicated to Don Roberto

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The soul and the harp/25 - Wealth and talents serve to free those who have been at the receiving end of suffering and evil

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 20/09/2020

"They are the "children of youth" because those who were destined to die between the ages of twenty-five and thirty had to hurry to procreate. A poor prize, from the desert and spears around the house. For a philosopher, both yesterday and today, it was nothing more than nails in the flesh"

Guido Ceronetti, The book of psalms

Is it possible to associate God with our blessings and save him from the curses of others? To thank him for our happiness while not condemning him for our misery?

Excess is one of the golden laws of life. She is the mother of generativity, the sister of generosity. We do not bear fruit without first sowing with large generous hands, without throwing a large part of the good seed among the thorns, along the road and among the rocks, because if we wanted to sow only in what we think to be good soil, nothing really good would be born. Good soil can only exist between brambles and rocks, and is ultimately reached by those who are willing to waste plenty of seed in their excessive throws. In order to be able to hope that a true prophet will be born in our community we must first generate ten false ones, to have an excellent student we must allow him to grow alongside a thousand ordinary ones, to generate an act of agape we must wait for it while it matures mixed with our own selfishness. That wasted part is as necessary as the much smaller part it eventually will generate. All avarice is sterile, all magnanimities are fruitful.

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Gifts that we call merit

Gifts that we call merit

The soul and the harp/25 - Wealth and talents serve to free those who have been at the receiving end of suffering and evil By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 20/09/2020 "They are the "children of youth" because those who were destined to die between the ages of twenty-five and thirty had to...
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The soul and the harp/24 – Rather than a simulacrum of God, each human being is a spark of his mystery

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  13/09/2020

The question how I came to such an archaic subject has not yet been answered. Various circumstances influenced it, interconnected through the years, with the passing of time. Ripeness is all. As a man and as an artist I had to somehow find myself in a state of "receptivity"

Thomas Mann, Appendix, Joseph and his brothers

There are themes of great human and religious significance involved in the prohibition of reproducing images of God. Psalm 115 reveals some of them.

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We should thank the Bible if only for having guarded the intimate mystery of God over the centuries, and protected from our theological and ideological manipulations. The Babylonian exile was not only the place and time where some of the greatest biblical books were born and where immense prophets such as Ezekiel and the Second Isaiah spoke and wrote. That exile also generated some of the most beautiful psalms. Songs and prayers flowed from the soul of a humiliated people, offended in their national identity, struck at the heart of their religion. The exile was many things, but it was above all a great religious test. Finding themselves in a land rich in religion, surrounded by many gods each with its own sanctuary, represented by shining statues and carried in spectacular processions, forced Israel to rethink their faith deeply. The harsh biblical anti-idolatrous controversy also developed during the exile. The absence of the temple and the images of YHWH gave birth to the question that the Babylonians ironically addressed to the Jews: "Where is your God?"

In those ancient cultures, a God without his own place or sanctuary was a nonexistent god. The great biblical idea prohibiting any representation of God came to maturity as an answer to that terrible question (Exodus 20,4). A single ban, based on a decisive event: «You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire» (Deuteronomy 4,15). The experience of the encounter with YHWH had been the encounter with a voice, with something real but invisible. Neither Abraham nor Moses nor the prophets actually saw the image of God - Moses saw it pass from behind, as if to say that he did not see it. Instead, they heard his voice, his whisper (Elijah). Hence, every alleged image of God can only be a false one, because that voice cannot be represented.

«Why do the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see.  They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats» (Psalm 115,2-7). The fight against idolatry of the Bible has two components: an external criticism of the images of the gods of other peoples and an internal criticism of Israel, which has always been tried to recreate images of its God. The criticism of Psalm 115 seems, at first glance, to be completely centered on the first component of idolatry, that is the ridicule of other people who adore silly pieces of wood. This, however, is not the most interesting and profound dimension of the biblical controversy, because if it had been formulated in the presence of the Babylonian priests and prophets, they could have replied that those images were only symbols and signs of their gods who, like the God of Israel, really "dwelt in heaven". They could have responded with arguments similar to those with which Catholics defended statues of saints from the iconoclastic fury of some movements of the Protestant Reformation. The biblical criticism of images is present to this day, when we tend to forget that statues and icons are the signs of a God that we do not see and that we recognize merely from a voice pronouncing a name: "Mary".

The second criticism, aimed at the Jews, is of far greater importance. Israel has been accompanied throughout its biblical history by the temptation to have a simple religion like that of other peoples, with the same statues and the same processions, with the same natural fertility rites. The golden calf under Mount Sinai is condemned and then destroyed by Moses because it is the image of their God - the name that the people gave to the golden calf was in fact: YHWH. Representing an invisible God can only produce the wrong images. The most important anti-idolatrous school of thought is hence the one that Israel developed not to criticize other people, but as a mechanism of self-protection of its own faith. A faith that was not only threatened (especially before the exile) by attempts to import foreign gods (the cults of Baal or the goddess "wife" of YHWH) and to place them in their temple, but from the temptation to simplify their faith. The most important idolatry is in fact a religious reductionism that becomes anthropological reductionism.

The background to all the anti-idolatrous reflection in the Bible is in fact Genesis, and in particular those wonderful verses on Adam created in the "image of God" (Genesis 1,27). If we humans are the image of God, if we reduce God to an inevitably wrongful image of him, then we are reducing ourselves even more, ending up as a reduced image of that reduced image. Keeping YHWH up there, in the sky, invisible but speaking to us, means holding the dignity of both women and men high; all the while saying that the image of God that we carry impressed inside belongs to the kingdom of the spirit and being, and not to that of appearing. Whoever sees a man, a woman or a child, does not see a statue of God, but a true spark of his invisible mystery. The truly essential aspect of the image is invisible to the eye. Sight is not the sense that is needed to truly see this image. The beginning of the Psalm is particularly important: «Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness» (Psalm 115,1). A theme very dear to the Bible returns: the Name. As the Christian era approached, the Jews spoke less and less of the name YHWH (Exodus 20,7). While often writing the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) they really pronounced "Adonai", Lord. The Name YHWH was pronounced by the priests and only in the temple, perhaps only on the feast of Kippur. However, with the second destruction of the temple in 70 AD the memory of the pronunciation of the Name revealed to Moses was also lost. But what lies behind the Name?

Those exiles felt a great nostalgia for the experience of God they once had at home, when YHWH still "lived" in his now destroyed temple. They struggled to rediscover the experience of the sacred without their sacred place. This tremendous effort of their, however, generated even more extraordinary things. First of all, the absence of the sacred temple invented the concept of a sacred time: Shabbat was born. Time became more important than space. The Shabbat became the temple of time, and remains one of the greatest prophecies found in the Bible to this day - without a new culture of Shabbat we will never get out of the environmental and social crises of capitalism, the anti-Shabbat. While in exile, they also discovered a new dimension of the Name, which they learned thanks to the prophets acting as sentinels during exile (there is a lot of Ezekiel in Psalm 115: «This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I acted for My name’s sake»: (Ezequiel 20,5-9).

With that first verse, the psalmist is saying to God: I am not asking you to show your glory for us here. No, we have not earned this (the people lived in exile as a punishment for their infidelities). Instead, show your glory out of faithfulness to yourself, out of faithfulness to your Name. Do not do it for us: do it for yourself. This is one of the most beautiful expressions of gratuitousness found in faith. The psalmist knew that we cannot take our advantage out of our prayers, but we can pray to God to not take it into account. Perhaps this is the maximum possible gratuitousness under the sun: God, I cannot set aside my own interests, you know this, but please do not take them into account while I pray to you. Here faith clearly distinguishes itself from commerce, prayer from magic. We pray to God for God. One of the greatest religious and human fruits born out of the exile experience: the gratuitousness of prayer, man's ability to transcend himself, to be greater than his own needs.

A final comment on idolatry. The biblical prohibition to represent divinity with statues or drawings generated as collateral beauty a great production of literary and narrative images about God. The Bible forbade ‘plastic’ images of God, but it lead to the production of an endless quantity of intellectual images. Rabbinic Midrash, Jewish legends, and then the immense, both in quality and in quantity, literature inspired by biblical episodes. That limit to the image impoverished the Jewish world of visual arts but, like Leopardi’s Hedge, it generated an infinite wealth of literature. God was not painted, but was deeply thought about and beautifully narrated. Greek philosophy thought above all of man, biblical wisdom pondered above all about God. But the Bible, perhaps, was not sufficiently aware of the great danger of intellectual representations of God (L.A. Schoekel). The Bible forbade the image (and the pronunciation of the name) of God to save God in his mystery and intimacy, to protect him from our many manipulations. The most powerful images, however, are not the visual ones, but the ones in our minds. Idolatry does not only manifest itself though figures, statues or puppets, the most pernicious puppets are the intellectual ones. That word, heart and profound soul of the Bible, is much more capable than any human hand to produce fetishes, and creating golden calves.

The real name of intellectual idolatries is ideology. And among the very harmful ideologies we find the religious ones, because they often forget the prohibition of "making oneself the image" of God. The temptation of theology is to violate the commandment of the prohibition of making images of God. A good scientist or a good economist know that the model they use to describe the world is not the actual world, (for example, perfect competition is not the actual market). A theologian, on the other hand, (except the very great, among them St. Thomas), is easily tempted to believe that the models he built to describe God are in fact the actual image of God. Therefore, once they have built a model thought of as an image, theologians believe that they have captured God within that image. We killed thousands of people, and burned heretics because they were too sure that the idea we had created of God was his image. Only by recovering the biblical sense of the prohibition of image to preserve the mystery of God, will we be able to learn the art of dialogue with those who have other ideas of God.

The last line of criticism of idols is both evocative and very beautiful: «Those who make them will be like!» (Psalm 115,8). Over time, we have learned that the subjunctive ("become") can be replaced by the indicative: becomes. We become the objects and images we adore. Without realizing it, we are becoming more and more similar to our goods, and increasingly similar to the idol of consumption. The Psalm ends with a splendid series of blessings. They are for us, we will not miss a single one: «May the Lord cause you to flourish, both you and your children. May you be blessed by the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth. The highest heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth he has given to mankind» (Psalm 115,14-16).

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The soul and the harp/24 – Rather than a simulacrum of God, each human being is a spark of his mystery

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  13/09/2020

The question how I came to such an archaic subject has not yet been answered. Various circumstances influenced it, interconnected through the years, with the passing of time. Ripeness is all. As a man and as an artist I had to somehow find myself in a state of "receptivity"

Thomas Mann, Appendix, Joseph and his brothers

There are themes of great human and religious significance involved in the prohibition of reproducing images of God. Psalm 115 reveals some of them.

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Not in the image of an idol

Not in the image of an idol

The soul and the harp/24 – Rather than a simulacrum of God, each human being is a spark of his mystery By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire  13/09/2020 The question how I came to such an archaic subject has not yet been answered. Various circumstances influenced it, interconnected throug...
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The soul and the harp/23 - Psalm 109 is the earth we need in order to rise from the depths of the waters into which we have fallen

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 06/09/2020

"But God understands. The desperate also have a right to pray. And I must make myself the voice of all creatures when I pray. Therefore pray also in the name of the most desperate in the world."

David Maria Turoldo, The Psalms

Swearing is also part of the Book. It is important to understand the reason, without being scandalized by the pain and despair of human beings.

The Bible is not a collection of good feelings; it is not a repertoire of uplifting stories for good people. It contains brutal gestures and terrible words, echoes of the gesture and words of Cain. The fathers and mothers of the chosen people and their best kings are presented to us as an interweaving mixture of both virtues and vices, capable of great love and sins, as well as of meanness and appalling crimes. At the centre of the genealogy of Jesus is Uriah the Hittite, a name that every Christmas repeats to us that that child of Bethlehem is also the bud of an encounter between an immaculate flower and the flower of evil. That morally imperfect genealogy speaks the only kind of perfection possible under the sun. For Logos to become a true man, there was no other road available to him than the dusty one we have been treading for millennia, where we met a Samaritan bending over a half-dead man near Jericho, where we saw a persecutor of Christians becoming their blessing in the direction of Damascus, and where we heard a traveller speak earthly words with the scent of heaven and bread near Emmaus.

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We already knew this, we know all this. However, this somewhat abstract awareness of the imperfection of biblical "perfection" is not enough to avoid the shock of our encounter with Psalm 109. We knew that, in the Psalms, God is on man's side, he knows all our words and he uses them all to tell us about himself. We knew it, but we were not ready for this psalm yet. The text that contains the most powerful imprecation in the Psalter and in the whole Bible. Many have thought over the centuries to cancel those terrible verses 6-19, because they are convinced that the Bible should not host such bad words, because it is not possible to approach the words of God with human words that are so far from the nature of YHWH. Instead, those ancient scribes and teachers saved the twenty curses of Psalm 109, they were greater than their idea of ​​God, they left that word free to intertwine and mingle with our words, with all our words, those of light and those of darkness, the good ones and the bad ones. Therefore, they gave us a great gift, they revealed man to us to a much greater extent, and they explained God to us to a much greater extent.

«They repay me evil for good, and hatred for my friendship. Appoint an evil man to oppose him; let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes. May a creditor seize all he has; may strangers plunder the fruits of his labour. May no one extend kindness to him or take pity on his fatherless children. May his descendants be cut off, their names blotted out from the next generation. May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out... He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil. May it be like a cloak wrapped about him, like a belt tied forever around him» (Psalm 109,5-19). It takes your breath away...

Many strategies have been attempted to save God and the Bible from these curses. Many believe that such a psalm should simply be excluded from the psalter, because the Bible must only ever offer us good words of peace, to improve our social relations. Other exegetes have tried to dampen the bewilderment by proposing to read that series of imprecations as a long quotation that the accused (the psalmist) makes of the words of his accusers; a strategy that turns out to be ineffective, because in verse twenty the psalmist himself explicitly invokes the law of retaliation for his accusers: «May this be the Lord's payment to my accusers, to those who speak evil of me». Guido Ceronetti, who gave us the most beautiful Italian translation of this psalm, comments on these verses: «We are so unnerved! So weak in the face of the horrible, the satanic! Those who know how to curse also know how to fight». (The Book of psalms/Il libro dei salmi).

I hereby propose a different way. We must simply welcome the bewilderment and discomfort that arise in our souls in front of this different prayer. Make room for them, even when they last for a long time, for some forever even. Until, one day, you find yourself with a murdered son, with a niece, the apple of your eyes, raped, or with a brother deceived and ruined forever, until one day; you meet a real victim and a real executioner in the flesh. Until the time comes for despair over pain caused to an innocent, perhaps to an innocent you love very much - the victims told by others and those known personally are very different, when that innocent person is you, a dear friend, your wife, your father. On that day and at that time, if you knew and did not understood him in times of joy and easy faith, you will remember that inside the Bible, kept within the shrine of the psalter, there is a different psalm. You now have a new desire to find it again. So you pick up that Bible abandoned for months, for years on a shelf, you shake off the dust, and you try to remember where the exact psalms are. You find them after Job, and you finally understand when scrolling through the pages of the psalter, you meet the many psalms of joy, praise, thanksgiving, the greatness of God ... but they do not tell you anything, they merely annoy you. You overcome the discomfort, you continue to leaf through the pages in search of something else, and finally you reach Psalm 109. Moreover, in reading it you feel that it was written just for you, and specifically for that terrible day. It was waiting for you, and you did not know it. You start reading that awful series of curses. You hear them as if they were your own words. Word after word, the tears begin to flow. You feel that something begins to move inside, that hardened heart frozen by anger begins to thaw, that knot that was hitherto reducing the breath in your lungs and the breath in your soul begins to ease up. You understand that maybe you had been praying the Psalms your entire life so that in the greatest tragedy you could remember that one prayer with the only words now possible for you. The Bible is capable of doing this too. Its God understanding us.

If those ancient scribes who wanted to cancel Psalm 109 had won, you would not have had access to the only words needed to start living again, to relearn how to pray. To pray, yes, because if that reading is sincere, while you read those curses you understand that those words, even though you feel as if they are your own and true, cannot be the last: they are in fact only penultimate. However, in order to understand that they are really only penultimate you must have that experience of feeling them as if they were the very last ones and utterly true. And so the prayer can end with the words with which the Psalm ends: «They may curse, but you will bless; when they attack they will be put to shame, but your servant will rejoice!» (Psalm 109, 28). In that moment you will find yourself back in Golgotha, and you will finally really see a crucified son, and perhaps you will be able to repeat «Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing». Before this encounter with Psalm 109, however, perhaps you would not have been able to pronounce them. There is a fellowship connecting the words of the Bible. You are only able to understand some of them when you discover that they were there only to allow you to say others in turn. In order to be able to ask God that the curses you have uttered should become blessings, first you have to go through this very special hell of despair in the company of the Bible and God. Without Psalm 109, the Bible would have lost the necessary words to reach the most peripheral and precious areas of ​​humanity. Those faraway corners, hiding silent words and strangled prayers, which would have remained silent and unvoiced without the courage of those ancient masters who understood that there are no human words that God cannot reach. The Bible is truly immense, extraordinary.

The first "merciful father" of the Bible is the Bible itself, the New and Old Testament together. He sees his son coming back from a distance, and hugs him when he still does not know and cannot speak. He throws his arms around his neck and puts the ring on his finger, while being criticised by the many older brothers who would like the agape to stop on that door to the pigpen and on the doorsteps of the whorehouses. The merciful embrace of the Bible is in its words, which see us, look at us, accompany us as we move between heaven and the underworld, and resurrect us while accompanying us in our misfortunes. Accompanying us until we reach rock bottom: Psalm 109 is that soil at the bottom of the deep waters into which we have fallen, on which we can rest our feet and push ourselves towards an ascent again. We, on the other hand, do not understand the Bible, just as we do not understand great literature. We think that the words of resurrection are those that begin after the sins, after the betrayals, after the wickedness, after the curses. We read these great texts in search of the words of Job whose sons and goods are restored, of David who wins over Saul, of the end of the Babylonian exile, the empty tomb. And by doing so, we miss all the other resurrections hidden in the dung heap, in the defeat of Saul, in the beginning of exile, in the cry of Golgotha. Because the Bible saves and redeems the victims while it sees them, as it bends over them, accompanying them in their own personal dramas. Victor Hugo redeems Jean Valjean as he joins him in his misfortune, Israel Joshua Singer saves Reb Abraham Hirsch's wife Ashkenazi while describing her miserable life to us: «And look at them he loved them», perhaps the divine breath of great literature is all in these eyes capable of resurrection.

We, on the other hand, are busy looking for "happy endings", we do not like Holy Saturdays and skip directly from Friday to Sunday instead. We discard the biblical words of curse and despair, and we lose touch with all the men and women who are now living those words in their own flesh. Our prayer becomes small, tiny and unable to touch the soul of the world and the heart of God. Psalm 109 (verse 8) also entered the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles used it to speak of the death of Judas: «'For', said Peter, 'it is written in the Book of Psalms: ''May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it', and, ''May another take his place of leadership''». Peter also found the words to express a scandalous and mute kind of pain in that Psalm 109 - we must not forget that Judas had been a close friend of the apostles and of Jesus: «He was of our number» (Acts 1,17). We can always think and hope that not even Judas was excluded from the merciful embrace of the Bible and its God.

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The soul and the harp/23 - Psalm 109 is the earth we need in order to rise from the depths of the waters into which we have fallen

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 06/09/2020

"But God understands. The desperate also have a right to pray. And I must make myself the voice of all creatures when I pray. Therefore pray also in the name of the most desperate in the world."

David Maria Turoldo, The Psalms

Swearing is also part of the Book. It is important to understand the reason, without being scandalized by the pain and despair of human beings.

The Bible is not a collection of good feelings; it is not a repertoire of uplifting stories for good people. It contains brutal gestures and terrible words, echoes of the gesture and words of Cain. The fathers and mothers of the chosen people and their best kings are presented to us as an interweaving mixture of both virtues and vices, capable of great love and sins, as well as of meanness and appalling crimes. At the centre of the genealogy of Jesus is Uriah the Hittite, a name that every Christmas repeats to us that that child of Bethlehem is also the bud of an encounter between an immaculate flower and the flower of evil. That morally imperfect genealogy speaks the only kind of perfection possible under the sun. For Logos to become a true man, there was no other road available to him than the dusty one we have been treading for millennia, where we met a Samaritan bending over a half-dead man near Jericho, where we saw a persecutor of Christians becoming their blessing in the direction of Damascus, and where we heard a traveller speak earthly words with the scent of heaven and bread near Emmaus.

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The name of the Father is Bible

The name of the Father is Bible

The soul and the harp/23 - Psalm 109 is the earth we need in order to rise from the depths of the waters into which we have fallen By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 06/09/2020 "But God understands. The desperate also have a right to pray. And I must make myself the voice of all creatures whe...
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The soul and the harp/22 - Like God, we too, at least once, can love those who do not deserve it

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 30/08/2020

«Priests cannot accept gifts», said Don Paolo. The woman protested: «Then it will not apply», she said. «If you do not accept the hen, grace will not apply, and the child will be born blind». «Grace is free», said Don Paolo. «Free grace does not exist», the woman replied.

Ignazio Silone, Wine and bread (Vino e pane)

The Bible teaches us to be grateful, for the salvation we receive, entirely free and not given to us due to our merits.

Gratitude is an essential word. It is the first word in our family, in our communities, less so in modern businesses, where gratitude with its closely related words recognition and thankfulness does not find the space it deserves because of its fragility. Gratitude - from gratia, charis - is very closely linked to "thank you", an expression we learn from our parents as children and which from then on never leaves our relationships again. Even those "thank you" that we say, several times a day, out of respect for social norms, bear at least some trace of gratitude, which however is more fully manifested in other "thank you", those that we expect and desire, not those that are demanded or claimed. They are the decisive ones in our most important relationships, those delicate signs of gratitude, more feminine than masculine in nature, more whispered than spoken, which appear in the crucial moments of our life. That thank you from that colleague on the last day of work, both identical and yet different from all the others, written on that note with the farewell gift. That "thank you" from the student who struggled the most, who on the last day of school leaves you a post-it on the desk, saying "Thank you Professor". Or the one on the day of leaving our home, to follow a voice, that we were unable to tell our parents because it was left stuck in our throat, and which then many years later we discovered to be similar to those ineffable signs of gratitude that are whispered every day at our bedside.

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The beauty and drama of this gratitude lies in its gratuitousness. Not being a contract, gratitude only has value when it is gratuitous (gratitude and gratuity are almost the same word). However, it also contains an aspect of duty and obligation. Because, if on the one hand the most precious qualities of gratitude are freedom and giving freely, on the other hand there are some forms of gratitude that, when they are missing, help to generate ingratitude, one of the strongest passions and bearers of suffering. Gratitude is in fact a form of reciprocity (of thank-fulness, of re-cognition), and hence, it includes an aspect of restituting something that you have already obtained. The presence of ingratitude alongside gratitude makes giving thanks a complex experience. Because with gratitude, we are at the center of the semantic paradox of gift and reciprocity, and therefore of those emotions and actions that are an intertwining of expectations and demands, freedom and obligation, between what is free and what is dutiful. We cannot demand that our next-door neighbor invites us over to say thank you for the plants that we watered for her during many summers in the past, before moving, yet if she does not, we will not be happy, and that lack of gratitude will ruin something important in that relationship. And perhaps there are very few adjectives that hurt us more than "ungrateful", especially when pronounced by the people we care about.

As it is true that we truly know and recognize people only at the end of a relationship, when their capacity for gratitude is truly manifested - sometimes even extending beyond life. It always strikes a chord with me to see the grateful fidelity of many and above all many women who for years, decades, look after the graves of their loved ones. We suffer a lot from ingratitude, also because there is a tendency in everyone to overestimate their credit of gratitude towards others (and hence to also underestimate their debt), and so we are accompanied by a constant feeling of not being thanked enough. Gratitude, then, is a feeling that needs time and duration. It is only born within stable and lasting relationships. It manifests itself today while maturing yesterday, and is therefore an exercise in memory: it is while remembering what you have been for me that gratitude now is born in my heart. This is why the icon that accompanied the depiction of gratitude in classical antiquity was the stork, because its legendary reputation for taking care of parents who had become old.

The Bible teaches us to cultivate and express our gratitude towards God too: «Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever» (Psalm 107,1). The community of believers is also a community of the grateful, because it is a community of the saved. Psalm 107 is in fact a hymn of thanksgiving (there are many in the Psalter) that comes from the experience of salvation. There are four paradigms of salvation in the psalm: salvation from on hunger and thirst: «Some wandered in desert wastelands... They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away» (Psalm 107,4-5), salvation from prison: «Some sat in darkness, in utter darkness, prisoners suffering in iron chains… and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness… and cut through bars of iron» (Psalm 107,10-16), from fatal diseases: «They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress» (Psalm 107,18-19), from the dangers of the sea: «Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters… He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed» (Psalm 107,23-29). And after each and every scene, a verse of gratitude is repeated four times: «Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind» (Psalm 107,15). It is the concrete experience of salvation that generates thanksgiving, which in turn makes gratitude flourish. A concrete salvation, from the evils of the body, which recalls the salvation by the historical Jesus, who while announcing a spiritual salvation freed people from concrete evils, by feeding and healing them. The salvation that produces gratitude is always punctual; it is always a question of concrete, actual resurrection.

Salvation, a decisive word if any in the Bible and later in Christianity, and closely related to the paradoxical dynamic of gratitude. On the one hand, on the side of God, it is all gift, and cannot be explained within the context of conditionality, of do-ut-des. No, we are just saved and that is it. Salvation is not something we can earn by way of our virtues and merits - perhaps by crying out: «Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress» (Psalm 107,13). Salvation is a response to a cry or calling out, but it is not a response to an action that justifies it: crying out is an expression of faith, and the justification for that salvation is faith (here we can clearly see, among other things, how much the theology of St. Paul was anchored in the Old Testament). However, it is also very beautiful and consoling that the saved men in this entire Psalm are not the people of Israel, they are not the elect: they are just men and that is it. This salvation is universal: it is enough to shout out - and perhaps we do not do it enough. At the same time, the Bible asks the saved for gratitude, inviting them to thank God for their salvation. Herein lies another great meaning of prayer: we do not only pray (or pray a lot) to obtain salvation (the biblical cry is a strange form of prayer), but we should pray above all to give thanks. Jesus himself shows that he is sensitive to both gratitude and ingratitude. People have often learned to pray precisely to say thank you: they do not ask for anything, then experience salvation, and give thanks. And from that thanksgiving prayer is born. The most beautiful birth of them all, completely free, freed from any residue of commercial faith.

It is difficult to remain in a state of gratitude, it is difficult to remain in the condition of one who gives thanks because he knows that what he possesses is all a gift, that the salvation he experiences every day is completely gratuitous. It is especially difficult for men of faith. Because, once salvation has been experienced and gratitude learned, the need and want to deserve and earn future salvation arises progressively and naturally in men (less so in women), in order to feel that there is also something of our own in the salvation that comes to us every morning. That we also contributed to it, that there is a share of co-financing in that mortgage of infinite value that is being offered to us, that we deserved that mercy, that faithful love (hesed) if only just a little. Thus, the experience of "being saved" is transformed little by little and without realizing it, into "saving oneself". And every time that saving ourselves steals ground from under the feet of being saved, the value of gratitude inevitably is being reduced.

It is human, it is very human. Because we men do not like to depend entirely on the gratuitousness of others, we like to earn our salvation with the sweat of our hard work and our merits, we too love that reciprocity where we alternate between the motion of giving and receiving. In part because we have also seen how much injustice the lack of reciprocity produces, how much inequality, how many poor people there are who are kept in a condition of perennial subjection due to depending entirely on their masters. The idea of ​​a God who gives us everything and on whom we totally depend has also produced a political-economic theology that has certainly not helped the poor to free themselves from their condition of inferiority, and a wrong, one-way and obligatory gratitude, which has left infinite suffering all over Europe and the world. The salvation of the people also turned into a question of saving them from theologies that were using a certain idea of ​​God to legitimize profoundly unjust structures of power, by making them sacred, Hence, the wonderful civil, economic and political movement that in recent centuries has worked to link the rights to nature or to an original egalitarian social pact, and salaries to the concept of work.

And while this great ethical movement of the people was taking place, and continues to unfold, the Bible is still there, faithful to itself, to remind us that these logics, essential and blessed in inter-human relationships, should not be applied to God, who instead should be held above our merits. Because if there is no principle of absolute gratuitousness in the foundation of our life to remind us that before and after merits there is an infinite gift, every meritocracy runs the very real risk of becoming a dictatorship of the strong over the weak. The biblical God does not love us because we deserve it - or because we deserve it more than others do - but because we are, simply, his sons and daughters, and son ship is not a meritocratic relationship, despite the protests of the elder son in the parable. We have to be thankful, this is our duty, but our saying thank you today is not the meritorious pre-condition for being saved tomorrow: God would still save us even if we were ungrateful. Knowing and remembering this absolute gratuitousness of God tells us, then, that somewhere in our being, made in his image, we are greater than reciprocity, and we too, at least once, can love those who do not deserve it, we too can love an ungrateful person.

The stork is also the one who brings us our children. The civilizations of the stork are those that have been able to keep up and combine the gratitude towards the elderly with the love for the children. The Fourth Commandment, which associates honoring the father and mother with the "prolongation of our days on earth", knew this very well. Only children know how to extend our lives.

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The soul and the harp/22 - Like God, we too, at least once, can love those who do not deserve it

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 30/08/2020

«Priests cannot accept gifts», said Don Paolo. The woman protested: «Then it will not apply», she said. «If you do not accept the hen, grace will not apply, and the child will be born blind». «Grace is free», said Don Paolo. «Free grace does not exist», the woman replied.

Ignazio Silone, Wine and bread (Vino e pane)

The Bible teaches us to be grateful, for the salvation we receive, entirely free and not given to us due to our merits.

Gratitude is an essential word. It is the first word in our family, in our communities, less so in modern businesses, where gratitude with its closely related words recognition and thankfulness does not find the space it deserves because of its fragility. Gratitude - from gratia, charis - is very closely linked to "thank you", an expression we learn from our parents as children and which from then on never leaves our relationships again. Even those "thank you" that we say, several times a day, out of respect for social norms, bear at least some trace of gratitude, which however is more fully manifested in other "thank you", those that we expect and desire, not those that are demanded or claimed. They are the decisive ones in our most important relationships, those delicate signs of gratitude, more feminine than masculine in nature, more whispered than spoken, which appear in the crucial moments of our life. That thank you from that colleague on the last day of work, both identical and yet different from all the others, written on that note with the farewell gift. That "thank you" from the student who struggled the most, who on the last day of school leaves you a post-it on the desk, saying "Thank you Professor". Or the one on the day of leaving our home, to follow a voice, that we were unable to tell our parents because it was left stuck in our throat, and which then many years later we discovered to be similar to those ineffable signs of gratitude that are whispered every day at our bedside.

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The civilization of the stork

The civilization of the stork

The soul and the harp/22 - Like God, we too, at least once, can love those who do not deserve it by Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 30/08/2020 «Priests cannot accept gifts», said Don Paolo. The woman protested: «Then it will not apply», she said. «If you do not accept the hen, grace will not ap...
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The soul and the harp/21 - One cannot believe without valuing all of humanity, nothing and no one excluded

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  23/08/2020

"The book of Psalms dominates all the others because it summarizes what the others contain and adds something of its own in its song. Other books contain the Law, they announce the Messiah; this book describes the movements of the soul".

Anastasius’ Episthle to Marcellini (4th century A.D.)

Trust and faith are kindred words. Without one, there can be no other, and faith is a relationship marked by vulnerability. Psalm 91 tells us about the nature of faith in terms of trust.Trust is a radically vulnerable relationship. When a person trusts another, he or she puts something of his or her own in the hands of the other, that the other could dispose of or even abuse. The root of that special joy we feel when someone places his or her trust in us, because we feel that they have asked us to keep something precious that concerns their person, their intimacy, their mystery, even when it is just a matter of something simple and material, lies in the trusting person’s act of exposing him or herself. This condition of vulnerability grows with the value of that "something" being deposited in the hands of the other, in the "palm of his or her hand". A vulnerability that also has its own value has typical properties that change and generally improve the nature of a relationship. Showing others our vulnerability, making it intentionally evident to them, while making us weaker also makes us stronger, thanks to the transformative dimension of vulnerable trust. The first and most important guarantee that those who have received this trust will honour it is that they feel honoured by that very act of trust - too many debts are not honoured simply because our financial system tends to humiliate rather than honour the debtor.

[fulltext] =>

If whoever performs an act of entrustment also does everything to reduce and possibly cancel the risk of misuse and betrayal that is intrinsic to trust, they end up reducing and cancelling the very value of that relational asset. If, for example, when writing a contract I define the details up to and including all possible future situations in order to prevent myself from any possible misuse of that fiduciary relationship, I am giving the other party a message of distrust that changes the nature of the relationship that we are building. Many relationships are nipped in the bud because the desire to exclude any future risk and wrongdoing creates such a climate of distrust that it prevents the relationship from even beginning. Trust that lacks vulnerability is of no good or value. We see this in relation to wives and husbands, sons and daughters, colleagues, friends, whom we love and who love us, as long as we are able to trust them (and they trust us) without having perfect guarantees on their reciprocity, although we depend on it for our happiness. In many relationships, trust is mutual. It is a meeting of relational goods, not necessarily symmetrical. Then when trust concerns some decisive relationships in our life, the relationship of trust takes on a ternary form: there is me trusting you, there is you trusting me, and there is a third person who places him or herself between us, as guarantor or witness.

It is, above all, the ternary or Trinitarian dimension of faith and trust that strikes you when reading the famous Psalm 91, a prayer that is precious to many religious traditions: «Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust"» (Psalm 91,1-2). This "trialogue" between the protagonist of the Psalm (who was perhaps spending the night in a temple waiting for an oracle in a dream), his God and a third party who teaches him trust-faith is very beautiful indeed. Biblical faith essentially has a ternary nature. Between a person of faith and his God there is also someone telling him that he can be trusted. This someone is a prophet, he is Abraham or Moses, he is the Torah, but he is also your brother or sister in faith. Psalm 91 does not tell us who this third person who teaches faith to the praying person is, and this anonymity is beautiful because that "someone" can be anyone, it can be me, it can be you. Not all of us have a prophet beside us to teach us about faith, but we all have a person who can teach us to believe and trust. A person who tells us: «Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart. You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday» (Psalm 91,3-6). And we answer: «The Lord is my refuge!» (Psalm 91,9): this is the second movement of faith, when after having believed in whoever taught him or her the faith-trust, the believer makes his or her declaration of faith. This movement is second, because, first, there is someone giving me faith - faith will end on earth the day the last believer stops passing it on to someone else.

Here too lies the meaning and value of Tradition: it is the chain of people who have taught each other about faith, that cord of solidarity explained over the centuries, made up of people and communities who have learned to believe in God by believing in other people's words. A continuous dialogue between those who tell us to trust and us responding with our affirmative and then telling others to trust our word because they are not-ours. Biblical faith is believing in God by believing the people who speak to us in his name by sticking their head above the grass. It is always a community experience, an event that happens among people, a mutual relationship of trust. Sometimes we are unable to believe because we are unable to trust, and practicing inter-human trust is an excellent preparation for faith. Whoever does not trust anyone, does not believe in God either, whoever trusts little in men trusts God a little too, and hence faith becomes a cognitive act that cannot change our lives.

Finally, we have the third movement. God enters the scene: «I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation» (Psalm 91,14-16). In formulating his promise, God exposes himself to the possibility of the non-fulfilment of these words, because history is a continuous show of faithful and just people who invoke and receive no answer, who are not made glorious, and who only end up knowing failure. And this is because biblical faith shares the same vulnerability inscribed in any relationship of true trust, true precisely because it is vulnerable. Because we have no direct knowledge of the one we trust, we only know him "by hearsay" (Job), we know him because we have "heard" about him from those we trust. For we and God both change constantly, every morning we have to think back to what we believed until last night - faith is an act of trust conjugated to the present. A decisive stage of mature faith consists in one day becoming aware that when we pronounce the word "God", the most beautiful, familiar and intimate word there is, we do not know what we are saying - but nonetheless we continue to say it, because these words can only ever be loved. This is why some great biblical vocations also include some form of a complicated entrustment in the beginning: Moses does not want to return to Egypt, Jeremiah recalculates, Jonah flees, Samuel needs four callings before finally saying: "here I am". Elijah had to learn to listen to the silence and YHWH learn to whisper, in order for him to get up and continue his journey.

If trusting in faith was not risky and vulnerable, faith would not be an authentically human experience, and by becoming believers, we would instead become less human. Those who in their lives have encountered a voice that called them and answered them, know that that risk is real and effective, because they know that sometimes even authentic vocations can go bad, they lose their way, and they get lost in immense pain (theirs and God’s). We do not know why even true vocations can end badly. Failure is part of the human condition, and an infallible calling would simply be inhuman. Moreover, it is this very possibility that the faith-trust we have placed in a mystery could go wrong, that makes it a very human experience, similar in its dignity to motherhood, to being born and dying. Our faith is an entirely human experience due to its tragic dimension. One can be fully human without valuing faith and those who believe, but one cannot believe without valuing humanity, all of it, without leaving anything out on the journey leading from hell to heaven and back again.

This Psalm was quoted by Satan, in the episode with the temptation of Christ: «Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone"» (Matthew 4,5-6). Satan here quotes verse 12 of Psalm 91. And Jesus responds to Satan by reiterating the entrusting nature of biblical faith: «Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’"» (Matthew 4,7). An important message of this splendid verse that ends up in Satan's mouth is the Bible exceeding its good uses alone. Even the devil knows and uses the same scripture known and used by the evangelists, telling us that merely knowing and quoting the Bible offers no guarantee of life or of authenticity of doctrine. There is a diabolical use of scripture, even of the Psalms and prayer, to the point that Satan takes one of the most sublime and lofty prayers in the Psalter to tempt Jesus. Jesus' use of the Bible and Satan's use both coexist within us - if only at least we were aware of it!

Here too lies the vulnerability of the Bible: there are its words, exposed in the public square of the world, and anyone can use them to pray, to love better, to learn how to live; but we can all also use them to curse, to condemn, to tempt, and to manipulate men and God, to blaspheme. Even God trusts us, putting his words in our hearts, and we can betray them. In hell there is not only "Pape Satàn pape Satàn aleppe" (The Divine Comedy, Inferno, D. Alighieri) there may also be biblical words being abused and raped. By choosing to speak to us, to speak to us in human words, God has chosen to share our fragility. In this too, he resembles us. This is the fourth movement of faith.

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The soul and the harp/21 - One cannot believe without valuing all of humanity, nothing and no one excluded

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire  23/08/2020

"The book of Psalms dominates all the others because it summarizes what the others contain and adds something of its own in its song. Other books contain the Law, they announce the Messiah; this book describes the movements of the soul".

Anastasius’ Episthle to Marcellini (4th century A.D.)

Trust and faith are kindred words. Without one, there can be no other, and faith is a relationship marked by vulnerability. Psalm 91 tells us about the nature of faith in terms of trust.Trust is a radically vulnerable relationship. When a person trusts another, he or she puts something of his or her own in the hands of the other, that the other could dispose of or even abuse. The root of that special joy we feel when someone places his or her trust in us, because we feel that they have asked us to keep something precious that concerns their person, their intimacy, their mystery, even when it is just a matter of something simple and material, lies in the trusting person’s act of exposing him or herself. This condition of vulnerability grows with the value of that "something" being deposited in the hands of the other, in the "palm of his or her hand". A vulnerability that also has its own value has typical properties that change and generally improve the nature of a relationship. Showing others our vulnerability, making it intentionally evident to them, while making us weaker also makes us stronger, thanks to the transformative dimension of vulnerable trust. The first and most important guarantee that those who have received this trust will honour it is that they feel honoured by that very act of trust - too many debts are not honoured simply because our financial system tends to humiliate rather than honour the debtor.

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The fragile movements of faith

The fragile movements of faith

The soul and the harp/21 - One cannot believe without valuing all of humanity, nothing and no one excluded by Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire  23/08/2020 "The book of Psalms dominates all the others because it summarizes what the others contain and adds something of its own in its song...
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The soul and the harp/20 - The art of counting our days is an essential yet rare spiritual craft

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 9/08/2020

"Back in the day when God created all things, he created the sun. The sun is born, wanes, dies and returns. And he created the moon. The moon is born, wanes, dies and then returns... He also created man. Man is born and dies and then never returns."

Sudanese song by the Dinka people

Psalm 90 reminds us that the fleetingness of existence can be overcome by tuning our hearts to that of the universe. And then, every morning, continue our work.

At the origin of spiritual life, there is an experience of the absolute. A rare experience that can happen, at any age, when we sense that we are just a grain of sand in an infinite sea, that there is a sense to the sea and to ourselves, and it is the exact same sense. If philosophical life begins with the wonder of existing-in-the-world, spiritual life begins with the wonder of this double-single sense; when we understand that we really are like an ephemeral butterfly, born to fly only for just one day, but the thrill of that "mad flight" is the same thrill of the universe. A photograph that captures a single moment can be as beautiful as the best of films, even brighter. Our time is a mere moment in time, but it has the same quality as God's time. Because the absolute has entered our time, and we into his, and they have become one and the same. And when we manage to tune our hearts to the heart of the universe we feel the same beat, and we discover that they both beat in unison – perhaps, prayer is nothing more than this.

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The psalms are full of this awe, sung in many different notes and tones, as many as there are human emotions and feelings. Different notes, that do not always harmonize, because while we carry out the exercise of living we are aware that it will "shortly be evening", praise is therefore intertwined with sadness, the gratitude of being alive and loved also touches on the envy of God and of his eternal dawn. We cannot understand much about prayer without also taking the suffering that arises from the envy of God seriously. This typical and paradoxical form of suffering of religious man is even more terrible in the psalms because in that humanism, death is not a different continuation of the same flight under God’s wing, but merely a sunset without a new dawn – «Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you?» (Psalm 88,10). It takes a lot of theological imagination to find anticipations of the Christian resurrection of the dead in the Psalter, in Ecclesiastes or in Job. The great gift of the Old Testament lies in this radical absence of consolation, which, by not placing a paradise beyond our death, invites us to find it down here instead, where it truly exists. If this flight under the sun is our only flight, if we in fact will not have a second chance, then our story is as brief as it is serious and important. Faced with the experience of the vanitas of life, the Bible knows that a real disappointment is preferable to a false illusion, that despair can be a good point of access to existence, certainly better than any invented consolation. The resurrection of Jesus was announced within a humanism in which it was not supposed to exist, and its wonder lies in that it was announced to us by a Bible that did not know of it until that very "first day after the Saturday".

Psalm 90 is a peak, an eight thousand meter peak in the Psalter. Poetry is intertwined with wisdom, prophecy with theology: «Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night» (Psalm 90,1-4). You are always and forever, we sentinels on a single watch, prophets for one night only (Isaiah 21).

And there, in that one brief moment, we truly meet God, and we truly are able to touch. You wound us, we wound you, to the point of nailing you to a cross. This is the mystery, this is the amazement, this is the drama of human life: «They are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered… All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away» (Psalm 90,5-10). And the song of the second Isaiah, poet in exile, is heard once again: «A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field… Surely the people are grass» (Isaiah 40,6-7).

The psalmist does not really know the origin or the root of this sad and ephemeral human condition. In some verses, he seems to tell us that it is a consequence of Adam's guilt and sin, winking at the first chapters of Genesis - "children of Adam, return to the dust" («For dust you are and to dust you will return»). A line certainly present in the Bible, certainly not the one that shines the brightest, even if it is very rooted in the people and in the temples of all times. The spiritual line of this psalm is different. It is a sapiential text, a meditation on the human condition, on how to live our brief passage here, well. We find it in one of the central and most suggestive verses: «Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom» (Psalm 90,12). The wisdom of the heart comes from learning to number or count our days. Because knowing how to count the days is a gift, it can come from a prayer, like the wisdom asked by Solomon as his only charism. The psalm tells us that the biblical art of counting the days is not the natural and spontaneous counting of our days, which is not enough to acquire this wisdom. A clock and the calendar are not enough here. We need a different kind of teaching, a pedagogy, someone that reveals something to us that we cannot do on our own.

Because human history display above all our errors in counting the days. We count them the wrong way when we are young, when they appear infinite and death is something that only affects others. We count them the wrong way, when we reach old age and the sadness for the end that is drawing near does not enable us to live the moments that we are still living, well. And we count them in an even worse way when, while enchanted by wealth and power, we believe ourselves invincible and immortal, and repeat to ourselves: «You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry» (Luke 12,19). The art of counting our days is a spiritual craft as rare as it is essential. The first lesson in this apprenticeship is the evidence of a great waste, when the powerful and true impression that we have invested our lives in the wrong places suddenly envelops us, and we become certain that the time for living has flown by and our life has remained tied to a pole. The psalmist will have received and learned this first lesson. Because if he prayed for the wisdom of knowing how to count the days, that gift must already have reached him - the first (and perhaps only) gift of prayer is the consciousness of needing what we are asking for, so prayer gets what it asks for in the moment we begin to pray: beginning to pray is already received grace.

The psalmist, however, did not stop at that first lesson. We can see it in the verse that immediately follows it: «Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days» (Psalm 90,14). Here, is the second lesson of the wisdom offered: while we understand, that we have miscounted our days, that we have not even seen them while we were actually living them, a new and different prayer begins to blossom. The sadness for the waste of our past days disappears, the pain for the wrong accounting of yesterday goes away, and a new hunger is born: "Satisfy me now with your grace-love-fidelity (hesed). Satisfy me in the morning, and from today onwards it will always only be morning: the morning of God". Something, similar to the paradoxical joy that Qoheleth found beyond illusion fought with disappointment, is born: «This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them - for this is their lot» (Ecclesiastes 5,18).

Reading the last verse of the Psalm is therefore full of beauty and of hope: «Establish the work of our hands for us - yes, establish the work of our hands» (Psalm 90,17). A phrase repeated twice, as in a liturgical game of choirs - "the work of our hands, the work of our hands; establish, establish". It is a splendid thing that at the end of a song of high meditation on the human condition, as the conclusion of a psalm that revealed the transience of our life and prayed for the wisdom of our heart, we find a verse on the work of our hands: we find work being mentioned. Perhaps because this new morning always comes as part any regular day, within the same line of work, the same family, in the same community as always. A new morning that finds Sisyphus in the same exercise of pushing the same boulder towards the same mountain. When that tragic hero, who is all of us, finally becomes aware of his destiny, and proceeds to thank his boulder, because he understands that it was that very boulder that pushed him up the summit every morning. We learn to count our days well when, one morning, we go back to the office and immersed in the same documents as always, surrounded by the same colleagues, we feel the same vibration of the universe on our desk, we see the same reflection of the ordering gesture of Elohim in the early morning of creation.

Psalm 90 is the only psalm that the Psalter attributes to Moses: «A prayer of Moses. The man of God» (Psalm 90,1 NLT). We do not know in what moment in the life of Moses the editor imagined him composing this song. For some, on Mount Nebo, at the end of his life, far from the Promised Land, waiting for God's kiss on his lips. Maybe, we do not know. I like to imagine Moses singing the last lines of this hymn to life while he blessed and praised the work of the artisans who built the Ark (Exodus 35). He looked at them and prayed: "Establish the work of our hands" and the people answered: "Establish it".

Hence, who knows if whoever composed this Psalm did not start from the end? While he was finishing one of his works, he felt the sadness for the vanity that would have swallowed up even that work of his, and he felt the typical sadness of someone who is faced with the ephemeral essence of life. And right there a new prayer was born: "Give substance to this work, so that it too does not pass by like the wind: save it, even if you cannot save me". From there, from that SOS to protect that work from a sea of ​​nothingness, that ephemeral poet came to the Absolute and asked him to teach him to count his days. And while he was making that prayer he discovered that he was already counting one day well, the one during which he was finishing his work. As we work, morning after morning, we do our job and finish our flight. Ephemeral, infinitely brief and utterly beautiful.

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The soul and the harp/20 - The art of counting our days is an essential yet rare spiritual craft

By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 9/08/2020

"Back in the day when God created all things, he created the sun. The sun is born, wanes, dies and returns. And he created the moon. The moon is born, wanes, dies and then returns... He also created man. Man is born and dies and then never returns."

Sudanese song by the Dinka people

Psalm 90 reminds us that the fleetingness of existence can be overcome by tuning our hearts to that of the universe. And then, every morning, continue our work.

At the origin of spiritual life, there is an experience of the absolute. A rare experience that can happen, at any age, when we sense that we are just a grain of sand in an infinite sea, that there is a sense to the sea and to ourselves, and it is the exact same sense. If philosophical life begins with the wonder of existing-in-the-world, spiritual life begins with the wonder of this double-single sense; when we understand that we really are like an ephemeral butterfly, born to fly only for just one day, but the thrill of that "mad flight" is the same thrill of the universe. A photograph that captures a single moment can be as beautiful as the best of films, even brighter. Our time is a mere moment in time, but it has the same quality as God's time. Because the absolute has entered our time, and we into his, and they have become one and the same. And when we manage to tune our hearts to the heart of the universe we feel the same beat, and we discover that they both beat in unison – perhaps, prayer is nothing more than this.

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Like an ephemeral butterfly

Like an ephemeral butterfly

The soul and the harp/20 - The art of counting our days is an essential yet rare spiritual craft By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 9/08/2020 "Back in the day when God created all things, he created the sun. The sun is born, wanes, dies and returns. And he created the moon. The moon is born,...
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The soul and the harp/19 – In times of trial we come to say to the Father: "Be faithful, remember yourself"

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 02/08/2020

"Only the word of man in response to the word of God, which in essence is a "no", attests to human freedom. This is why the freedom to say no is the foundation of history"

Jacob Taubes, Occidental Escathology

Exile is a time when, while sitting on the ruins of that "first promise", we can ask God and ourselves to become greater than reciprocity.

Reciprocity is the blessing and curse of our pacts and promises. We are made of reciprocity, we desire and hope for it after our gifts, we await it in the form of esteem after having delivered the result of our work, and no love can flourish in fullness if at some point it does not become mutual love. When Christianity wanted to synthesize the message of Jesus in a single law, it found nothing better than a command of reciprocity - "love one another". In Christian humanism, love remains imperfect until it produces more love in return. Agape, in its must-be essence, is to love and be loved. This seal of mutuality indelibly inscribed in the heart of each person and of communities, generates a radical indigence of gratitude and recognition, and therefore of anticipation and expectations of reciprocity that often come close to being pretentious. We do not check the esteem of others or their gratitude, but without it, we feel divided, dissatisfied and incomplete.

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This is why a lot of unhappiness, frustration and even violence ends up being played out on the very edge between desire and expectation, hope and demand, freedom and obligation. Those who, after having learned the grammar of many reciprocities throughout their life, after having infinitely loved and understood it as the bread and water of important relationships, and one day manage to learn to go beyond reciprocity, to live even without that bread and water, those are the ones that learn the art of living well. That is when an age of a new poverty and an adult meekness begins; a time of happy meekness begins. Because we understand that our dignity is greater than any reciprocity, and that no reciprocity can satiate our thirst and hunger for infinity, which will accompany us, in crescendo, throughout our lives. And that we have to accept the few reciprocities as a pure gift and amazement.

«I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations. “Steadfast love will be built up forever; in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.” “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: ‘I will establish your offspring forever‘» (Psalm 89,1-4).

The beginning of the Psalm recalls a wedding rite, or a covenant between two people, where each one says their promise and builds the covenant as an encounter of two "forever". Then, in the name of the people, the hymn of love is raised: «Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones… Blessed are the people who know the festal shout, who exult in your name all the day» (Psalm 89,5-16). Hence, the psalm reminds God of his promise: «Of old you spoke in a vision to your godly one, and said: “I have granted help to one who is mighty; I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him… I will establish his offspring forever and his throne as the days of the heavens… I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness. I will not violate my covenant or alter the word that went forth from my lips"» (Psalm 89,19-34). Words that are very similar to those that we find on the lips of the prophet Nathan in the Second Book of Samuel (chap. 7), which perhaps the psalmist was inspired by, along with the Babylonian poems (including the Enuma Elish).

And it is here, precisely in verse 38, where the dramatic center of the psalm can be found. When, after repeating one's love and reminding God of his, the adversative preposition "but now you" gives a twist to the song and reveals its true meaning: «But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust… You have made his splendor to cease and cast his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth» (Psalm 89,38-44). Here we have exile, the rock where the history of salvation was broken, the vanitas-mist that wrapped the promise, the sword that severed that pact of reciprocity. A Psalm composed in Babylon, when the great test of Israel was the (almost) certainty that her God had forgotten the Covenant. The prophets interpreted the exile as a necessary consequence of the unfaithfulness of the people - to remind us that it is always very difficult to cross our exiles and come out of them while still innocent in our soul. However, it was also in the midst of those religious ruins that the most sublime prayer in the Bible was born, Israel learned to pray differently.

The words that form the backbone of the song are hesed and emét. Hesed is a dimension of love that above all recalls loyalty in lasting relationships. It is loyal love, which therefore borders on fidelity and reliability, that is, with emét. Emét refers to truth and fidelity, and has the same root as ’aman (to believe), emunah (faith) and amen (it is true, I believe) the word with which this psalm ends. At the basis of emét there is an idea of ​​solidity, of truth as evidence, of "shoring up" (which is the first meaning of the verb 'aman). There is a hidden meaning to this even in the Hebrew alphabet: emét is composed of three letters that each rest firmly on two "legs", while the word "false", seqer rests on a single point, staggering, highly unstable. This is biblical faith, which unlike the Greek and later faith of Enlightenment is not a cognitive act of reason aimed at believing in principles or entities, but an acknowledgment of a reality that has its intrinsic and concrete evidence-truth. Our hands and feet are the first instruments of this faith.

The overlap between these two words, which move within the semantic perimeter of truth-faith-faithfulness-loyalty, is the key to entering into the secret of this psalm. The psalmist asks his God, the God of the Covenant and therefore the God of their mutual pact, to be greater than reciprocity. And the possibility of this paradoxical operation lies above all in the semantics of the beautiful word emét, which simultaneously means both: truth and faithfulness. That "remember you, remember yourself" so common in the psalms, returns once again. When sitting on the rubble of the past, in times of failure and misfortune, the first prayer is no longer that of ordinary times: «God remember me». In terrible times, the exercise of memory becomes radical and wonderful. Man makes use of the resource of last resort and dares to say to God: "remember yourself", remember who you are. And thus the most beautiful of prayers is born, the one we say to God, but also the one we say to each other when, sitting on the garbage heap of what remains of our covenants and pacts, we still find the strength for one last request: "remember who you were, remember who you are". Being faithful to a pact therefore has its root and reason in truth. A similar expression that we read in other psalms is: "for the sake of your name". As if to say: "You YHWH are not like us, who are tied and imprisoned within the law of reciprocity and conditionality of our covenants. You are greater because you are able to continue to be faithful to a covenant even when we betray it; you are a true God because you are also free from reciprocity. This is why you must be faithful to your name, you must be loyal to your own 'forever' precisely and because we no longer are. Be greater than the freedom you have given us". This is how, by repeating these prayers, we too learned to pronounce our "forever". By reminding God of his "forever", we have become capable of saying it too. And so we learned forgiveness, we too learned a greater loyalty for the sake of "our name", for a mysterious true loyalty to ourselves that made us, at times, better than our reciprocity.

Over the centuries, this psalm has been prayed by many men and women who, faced with the rubble of adult life, have reminded God of the truth of the first covenant and of the first vocation; and while they reminded God they reminded themselves of it too, in a new experience of reciprocity - as adults the truth-fidelity to our "name" can only be resurrected if someone else reminds us of it. We know that in the beginning there was a true voice, a calling and an alliance. We responded generously, we believed in that truer truth. And we started the journey, we got dusty along the way, and one day we found ourselves in exile in a foreign land, even when we had never left the house or the convent. We become adults within a vocation when we are able to understand that the life we ​​are leading is not the one we wanted to lead, and a profound feeling of infidelity arises, an infidelity that is not betrayal but the revelation of the truth of that first voice. Sometimes, along these rivers, we too manage to cry out to God "remember yourself", in order to tell him: "I didn't manage to keep the fidelity of the first covenant, but you must be faithful. And if you are faithful to the pact with me I will not miss anything, it's a nice way to grow old and die". If faith is also a rope (fides), then the climb continues and does not speed up until one of the two lets go.

The conclusion of the psalm, its last "remember" is very beautiful and mysterious indeed: «Remember, O Lord, how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations» (Psalm 89,50). How could we not discern an echo here of the song of Isaiah’s servant?! «Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows» (Isaiah 53,4). The poet becomes down to his very tissue and bowels (in sinu) an image of the suffering, exiled, humiliated people. Guido Ceronetti's comment on this verse is very beautiful: "If there is a unifying principle that is not of theological invention, it is this dishonor that unites us. In this text, however, it is also Scripture itself that speaks, saying of itself, with implacable sacred shamelessness, what it has brought about of the world and into the world "(The Book of Psalms, p. 274).

All the wombs of the suffering servants in history were a place where a different seed was able to grow and mature, a seed which one day centered into the womb of a virgin. "Rejoice oh Mary" is the answer to the many "remember oh God".

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The soul and the harp/19 – In times of trial we come to say to the Father: "Be faithful, remember yourself"

by Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 02/08/2020

"Only the word of man in response to the word of God, which in essence is a "no", attests to human freedom. This is why the freedom to say no is the foundation of history"

Jacob Taubes, Occidental Escathology

Exile is a time when, while sitting on the ruins of that "first promise", we can ask God and ourselves to become greater than reciprocity.

Reciprocity is the blessing and curse of our pacts and promises. We are made of reciprocity, we desire and hope for it after our gifts, we await it in the form of esteem after having delivered the result of our work, and no love can flourish in fullness if at some point it does not become mutual love. When Christianity wanted to synthesize the message of Jesus in a single law, it found nothing better than a command of reciprocity - "love one another". In Christian humanism, love remains imperfect until it produces more love in return. Agape, in its must-be essence, is to love and be loved. This seal of mutuality indelibly inscribed in the heart of each person and of communities, generates a radical indigence of gratitude and recognition, and therefore of anticipation and expectations of reciprocity that often come close to being pretentious. We do not check the esteem of others or their gratitude, but without it, we feel divided, dissatisfied and incomplete.

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The womb of the different seed

The womb of the different seed

The soul and the harp/19 – In times of trial we come to say to the Father: "Be faithful, remember yourself" by Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 02/08/2020 "Only the word of man in response to the word of God, which in essence is a "no", attests to human freedom. This is why the freedom to say ...
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The soul and the harp/18 - The space of the prophet is profane and goes from the valley of tears to the threshold of the temple

 By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 26/07/2020

"The dryness that springs up, the wall that breaks so that God appears without appearing is the wonderful lesson of Psalm 84".

Guido Ceronetti, The book of psalms (Il libro dei salmi).

A great religious innovation of the Bible, as psalm 84 reminds us, was to learn that God is not tied to his temple or sacred places.

Homo viator. For tens of millennia Homo sapiens was a nomad and a traveler. We followed the rhythm of the seasons and the blooms, we chased the tracks of the deer and the bison, we returned thirsty to the oasis and the source, experts of transhumance. We did it to survive, we ran to escape death. Then, at a certain point, in that territory furrowed and marked only by the natural hours of life, we began to discover different spaces, to recognize special places; and we started to mark rocks, to erect stems, to build altars. The sacred was born. Along those ancient tracks, we thus began to stop, not only, to gather, hunt, repair, and drink; we began to stop in other places too because we were attracted by a spiritual presence that manifested itself and changed the landscape. Space became quality. From that moment, it was no longer enough to just eat, repair, drink and reproduce. It was no longer enough for us to walk along the deer trail. We wanted to know the mystery of the deer and its paths, find out where those we loved ended up after death, to know who moved the sun and the other stars. We started asking new questions about things, and so we began to see the gods. The world changed forever, filled with silent words, with new languages, with symbols. We spoke basic languages ??among us, and they were enough to coordinate the hunting and raising our children. However, we also learned new languages in order to speak with nature, with demons and angels – but we forgot many, if not almost all of them, while turning inter-human language increasingly powerful, because those other languages could only live on the weakness of our language.

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Millennia have passed since then, and we have changed a lot, but we never stopped walking. For wars, for trade, but we continued to walk, to go and see God in his place too. When we reached the threshold of the temple, we entered another time, our dead felt alive, we felt we like family members of the saints, and we were given eagle wings to fly crazy flights until we could touch paradise. That threshold was the door to heaven; just touching it meant conquering death: if only for a few hours, but still truly conquering it. We forgot the pain of living, we forgot to be poor, and in that moment, our hearts felt the thrill of being at the same altitude as the angels. Together with new fears, we learned new kinds of gratitude. The experience of the sacred was the experience of the sublime, therefore transitory, punctual, embodied in space and time, it only happened there, and therefore soon ended. And it was wonderful, sometimes scary, always tremendous. It was wonderful because it was exceptional and extraordinary. So exceptional and extraordinary that people and entire communities often ended up shipwrecked and drowned in this sea.

This is why there was no journey more beloved than the pilgrimage; we liked the elegant and imagined houses of the lords, but above all, we liked the house of God: «How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God» (Psalm 84, 1-2). How lovely, how I love, what a delight your home is: different words to express the beautiful Hebrew word that we also find in the name of David, in the love song of Isaiah (5,1), in the Canticle, in the wedding psalms (45). There is no other word in the Bible that is more intense in order to speak of the love of desire, the movement of the heart - Psalm 84 is the song of someone in love.

However, once he arrived near the temple in Jerusalem, the psalmist first of all gives us a detail in particular: «Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young - a place near your altar» (Psalm 84,3). This is one of the most delicate and surprising things of beauty in the Bible. A man who calls his God "Jehovah Sabaoth", that is, God of armies and hordes, who then arrives at the temple and shows us a sparrow and a swallow. The infinitely great retracting to make room for the infinitely small, the immense abode of God who curls up inside a sparrow's nest. The Almighty who curls up to enter the space of a manger. The first beatitude or bliss of this psalm is for the little bird: «Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you» (Psalm 84,4). Almost as if to confuse the praises sung by the priests of the temple with the chirping of the sparrow and the warbling of the swallow. Both permanent inhabitants of the most beautiful place in the world, ever present singers of his glory, both praised and somewhat envied by the pilgrim temporarily inhabiting that same eternal realm. But a second bliss is the true heart of the Psalm: «Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage!» (Psalm 84,5). The pilgrim's bliss immediately becomes the bliss of the path: «As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools. They go from strength to strength» (Psalm 84,6-7). The pilgrim is the one who transforms the valley of tears into a spring, it is his movement that makes the arid land flourish, and it is his foot that fertilizes the desert. A splendid reciprocity between Adam-adamah (man-earth). The custody of Eden continues: we are the custodians of the earth making it flourish with our industrious hands, and we are its custodians leaving our imprints on it while we as nomads trample, moving towards the house of God. These roads are wounds of the earth through which rays of eternity every now and then peak out. They are not yet a temple, but its desire already makes them a temple. Walking is nourishment for the road ("they go from strength to strength").

These two verses are full of symbols and linguistic ambivalences, some of which we cannot quite grasp now. The Quran (Sura III, Al-'Imran: 96) sees the second name of Mekka in the Bakka valley, and Islamic tradition places the desperate pilgrimage of Hagar (Genesis, 21) and the well (of Zamzam) from which, through the intervention of the angel, Hagar drew water to save his son Ishmael, in that desert. Hagar's tears were the first "blessed rain" on that arid valley; she was the first "traveler in this arid soil" (Leopardi). This deep connection between Psalm 84 and Hagar, Sarah's slave, to whom the first angel of the Bible appeared, is very beautiful. She, the image of a poor pilgrim, and the other a wandering Aramaean, to tell us that at the end of the pilgrimage, the God who appears to a slave and a discarded child in order to save them, is one and the same.

The journey ends, reaching Jerusalem: «Till each appears before God in Zion» (Psalm 84,7). What did the pilgrim see in the temple? What can you see of an invisible God without images? What theophany could be found in an empty temple, closely guarded in its emptiness? Biblical theology has grown and become a universal common good thanks to its ability to inhabit the paradox of an invisible God who did manifest himself, but whose real glory truly lived in an empty temple because it had been completely emptied of every idol. In an ancient Middle-Eastern world populated by an infinity of gods and idols, each with its own very visible face and its own shrines full of shimmering statues, the Bible managed to show its many faithful a God without the need to really see or touch him. A different kind of place, the temple, was enough for him to show the invisible-reality to those who reached his threshold. Being in an empty space generated the first theological innovation of antiquity: not being able to see and touch a God whom you believed and knew to be true, produced an idea of ??God no longer imprisoned within the language of our senses. What did those pilgrims see then? We do not know anymore, but they certainly did not see statues or paintings: they saw the one they believed through faith. Perhaps faith arises when we, as pilgrims on the threshold of an empty temple, repeat: "I believe in you", and without hearing it we sense a true voice replying: "I am".

«Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked» (Psalm 84,10). In your courts, to be the doorkeeper: the believing pilgrim is the inhabitant of the courtyard, the companion of the sparrow and the swallow, he is the inhabitant of the threshold, a liminal woman or man, who knows how to stand on the threshold of an empty yet inhabited dwelling. That threshold, savored one in a thousand days, is the best place under the sun. Because it is the post of the "keepers of the temple", that of the sentry. The threshold is also a place of prophecy, of those who walk, arrive and do not enter, because in order to guard an empty space they also protect it from their own presence. The space of the prophet is not the sacred one inside the temple, but the profane one that goes from the valley of tears to the threshold and then back from the threshold to the valley of tears, made fertile precisely through that walking and that custody.

On another day, those pilgrims of the absolute experienced the most tremendous and dramatic of experiences. That temple, that one true home of the one true God, was desecrated and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Psalm 84 and the other psalms of the temple continued to be sung by the exiled people. Here we find ourselves in front of a second religious innovation, perhaps the greatest of them all: we can meet God even without a temple, even without any sacred places. YHWH became a pilgrim, just like us. Therefore, the cancellation of the sacred space, already concentrated in Israel to that one temple, enabled those tormented people to free themselves from the need for a sacred place in order to meet God, to understand that if there is a true God, he does not live anywhere because he lives everywhere: «I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple» (Revelation 21,22).

Journeys of pilgrimages are still undertaken and must continue to be undertaken, because when we stop wandering in search of God we begin to walk only looking for idols in their threshold less atria. That God who awaits us at the end of the journey is already walking in our midst (Matthew 18,20), without a nest to rest in. And once you reach his threshold, do not ask "where is God?", but "where are we"? If all the temples disappeared one day, if the whole world became a large empty temple (or is it already?), two or more pilgrims would be able to repeat the same wonderful experience of Psalm 84, they would be able to intone his song, on his very own threshold.

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The soul and the harp/18 - The space of the prophet is profane and goes from the valley of tears to the threshold of the temple

 By Luigino Bruni

Published in Avvenire 26/07/2020

"The dryness that springs up, the wall that breaks so that God appears without appearing is the wonderful lesson of Psalm 84".

Guido Ceronetti, The book of psalms (Il libro dei salmi).

A great religious innovation of the Bible, as psalm 84 reminds us, was to learn that God is not tied to his temple or sacred places.

Homo viator. For tens of millennia Homo sapiens was a nomad and a traveler. We followed the rhythm of the seasons and the blooms, we chased the tracks of the deer and the bison, we returned thirsty to the oasis and the source, experts of transhumance. We did it to survive, we ran to escape death. Then, at a certain point, in that territory furrowed and marked only by the natural hours of life, we began to discover different spaces, to recognize special places; and we started to mark rocks, to erect stems, to build altars. The sacred was born. Along those ancient tracks, we thus began to stop, not only, to gather, hunt, repair, and drink; we began to stop in other places too because we were attracted by a spiritual presence that manifested itself and changed the landscape. Space became quality. From that moment, it was no longer enough to just eat, repair, drink and reproduce. It was no longer enough for us to walk along the deer trail. We wanted to know the mystery of the deer and its paths, find out where those we loved ended up after death, to know who moved the sun and the other stars. We started asking new questions about things, and so we began to see the gods. The world changed forever, filled with silent words, with new languages, with symbols. We spoke basic languages ??among us, and they were enough to coordinate the hunting and raising our children. However, we also learned new languages in order to speak with nature, with demons and angels – but we forgot many, if not almost all of them, while turning inter-human language increasingly powerful, because those other languages could only live on the weakness of our language.

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Like sparrows and swallows

Like sparrows and swallows

The soul and the harp/18 - The space of the prophet is profane and goes from the valley of tears to the threshold of the temple  By Luigino Bruni Published in Avvenire 26/07/2020 "The dryness that springs up, the wall that breaks so that God appears without appearing is the wonderful lesson of ...