Two years ago this summer, I attended my first regional CL event, the Northeast Vacation. In my brief “career” with Communion and Liberation, this was a convincer. Three days in New Hampshire with new friends from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, including their children, told me that CL is the charism I want to follow. This afternoon at 2:30 p.m. I drove away from another convincer, the 2011 Fraternity Exercises in Florham Park, New Jersey.
That first Vacation had the effect on me typical of a religious retreat, maybe you know the type. You return home feeling enchanted, and you pray that the fairy dust will last forever. Then you get into your first spat with your spouse or boss, or stub your toe on your own doorsill, and the magic is gone.
This year’s Fraternity Exercises had a different effect on me. They did not promise or provide an instant change, although the Scriptural quotation that hung in front of the hall did augur transformation: “Whoever is in Christ is a new Creation.—St. Paul.”
Father Julián Carrón’s three videotaped lessons, which I described in a previous post, began with a question: What separates us from the experience of Mary or the Apostles in front of Christ? For them, He was an event. For us, too often, religion has become a set of ideas, an ethical plan for better behavior. It is customary, Father Carrón said, to blame modern science for the “defeat” of religion in our times, but it would be more honest to blame religion itself. Religion, he said, has become a consumer product, an entertainment. The salt has lost its savor. Christians, he said, must make the Living God visible to the world, but instead we often hide Him.
According to CL founder Fr. Luigi Giussani, faith must be an experience in the present; it must be confirmed by its usefulness in our daily lives; and it must somehow hold fast in the anti-religious cultural winds that would knock it flat. How can faith be such a fact for us? How can we become witnesses to Christ like Mary and the Apostles? How can we become witnesses to Christ like Pope John Paul or Father Giussani himself?
Saturday morning Father Carrón offered a diagnosis of our ills, what he called the “confusion of the I.” We live in a time, he said, that leaves us unable to perceive our own value. This derives in part from the influence of mass media, school, job, politics—life. The “powers that be” diminish our energy, penetrating us so deeply that we become estranged from ourselves. We lose touch with ourselves, our needs, our hearts. All that matters, finally, is “what’s fashionable.” What’s needed is sincere attention to both our own needs and to reality; instead we impose categories and preconceptions on our experience, both inner and outer. In a remarkable phrase, Father Carrón said that this situation generates “a repugnant arrogance that does not even know our needs.” We are sadly asleep to ourselves.
Next, Father Carrón invited us to consider “the eternal mystery of our own being,” to discover our own “human face.” This means reawakening ourselves to our own need and particularly to our “desire for the infinite.” Referring to the title of the book we have been reading in CL Schools of Community, this means to get back in touch with one’s own religious sense. This can be painful because when we acknowledge the contents of our heart, we must admit to pain and suffering. Yet, according to Father Carrón, to suffer want, emptiness, boredom is to encounter the chief symptoms of the grandeur of our own human nature.
Scribbling notes as fast as possible at this point, I wrote down the following, which cannot claim to be a direct quote:
This irresolvable contradiction [between want, emptiness, boredom and the grandeur to which our hearts point] is the eternal mystery of our being. What is most missing in man is not God. What is missing is [an awareness of] the mystery of our own being. Because we don’t experience our own true need, we don’t need Him, and so we seek the answers where everyone else is looking. When we begin to understand the mystery of our own being, we develop the capacity to judge our experience, we overcome our confusion.
Sadness, Dostevsky said, is not a misfortune but an eternal and sacred longing. If we were deprived of the infinitely great (for which we long), we would die of despair. Our sadness thus reveals itself as a promise.
Father Carrón’s final point on Saturday morning was what he called a “nostalgia for a You.” The needs of our heart, what Par Lagerkvist referred to as nostalgia, implies the existence of the answer to our question: the Other, the Mystery, God. The psalm expresses both our need and its answer beautifully: “O God, you are my God, for you I long. For you my soul is thirsting. . . . ” The Beatitudes express the same: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst . . . ” Blessed indeed—because only those who are in touch with their own needs (hunger, thirst, longing) are even asking the question to which God is the answer. Thus the center of religious life is asking, begging, prayer.
Saturday afternoon was a struggle for me. While I had been about as sharp as I can be Friday evening and Saturday morning, after lunch I was sleepy and nodding. My notes are incomplete, spotty, with embarrassing ellipses [ . . . ]. It’s time for me to knock off here, but tomorrow I will try to round out these notes. For the time being, I will leave you wondering, that’s right, with a question and possibly even a need.