Saturday, 24 January 2015

Peppuccio: being by not being


Today, at the age of 85, the man who has helped me most with understanding God has gone to be with Him. Giuseppe Maria Zanghí, known simply as Peppuccio to all who met him (the Italian diminutive for Joseph that in English would be rendered as Joey), was a follower and close collaborator of Chiara Lubich, whose process of beatification is completing its diocesan phase and transferring to the Vatican on Tuesday.

Peppuccio’s philosophical genius will, I am certain, provide the basis for a deeper understanding of God for many generations to come. His insights into the fundamental interconnectedness of being and not being as the key to love and to an intuition of the value of suffering are akin to Einstein’s theory of relativity in that they turn all that came before on its head, while, at the same time, being a superset of it. Having had the privilege to listen to him speak and to get to know him personally a little has been a great gift for me and I will never forget meeting him again last May, after not seeing him for many years. By that time he had become a frail, old man, whose former steel had given way to the warmth of a kindly grandfather. I will never forget his recognizing me and caressing my face like my own grandfather used to.

Dearest Peppuccio, I will miss you very much! Thank you for all you have taught me!

Instead of telling you more about his extraordinary life, I prefer to translate for you an excerpt from a paper he wrote in 1979, entitled “Identity and dialogue,” so that you may get a flavor of his extraordinary thought directly.

In this paper Peppuccio considers the challenges and seeming opposition of the concepts of individual identity on the one hand and of dialogue on the other. Let’s join Peppuccio’s train of thought at the point where he presents how God loves us without possessing us, after having presented profound analyses of both identity and dialogue in isolation:

“I can be myself in Him (being an intimate participant of Trinitarian life in the Word), while being really distinct from Him (by virtue of being a creature different from Him). It is His love that wants me, and the love of God does not withdraw into itself, canceling diversity with the other by totally reverting it to Himself, but “makes” the other and guards them in diversity from Himself, not wanting to possess (like He doesn’t possess Himself) in total reabsorption.

And also those who are other than me, the other, or other subjects, are really different from me, because they are “guarded” in the diversity of God, and yet we are one because we are all seized by the same movement of God’s love.”
Peppuccio here roots our diversity-preserving union with God and our own relationships with others in His own inner life, where God’s relationship of love to all is the basis of our own diversity-preserving union with them. He then spells out the consequences of a departure from this many-but-one life:
“If I remove myself from the ecstasy of love, the ecstasy of being, my identity will experience an infinite regress, and I loose myself in the abyss of a nothing that, not being the “nothing” of the Love that wants me ecstatically, is a nothing that is not real, it is nothing-nothing ... And community with others will be a collision and a negation and a distancing to infinity. The peace that is Love is replaced by the war that is hatred.”
Note that ecstasy in the above is best read in the Ancient Greek philosophical sense of ἔκστασις (ekstasis), “to be or stand outside oneself, a removal to elsewhere,” since it refers to the self-giving, self-othering nature of love. Removing oneself from the ecstasy of love means retreating into oneself, while God’s love for me being ecstatic underlines His going out of Himself for my sake.

Peppuccio then proceeds to sketch out the Christian approach to relating to others, as a departure from the self-constrained, static nothingness resulting from a withdrawal from ecstatic relationships:
“The Christian revelation has ripped through this way of thinking and of being socially structured from the inside. But we are still far, it seems to me, from having understood this clearly and from having draw practical conclusions from it. It is true, in modern thought duality has been made more dynamic with dialectic. But the logic of confrontation and struggle has not been overcome. Because the relationship between the two “opposing” extremes (I and the other, I and God) is still thought of as ending in one of the two (and, therefore, in the strongest!); while, if Christian faith is true, the relationship does not end in either of the mediated extremes, but in a third that saves them precisely in their diversity. The relationship between two, if it wants to be thought and lived in the logic of God, must be torn from pure (and abstract) symmetry and discovered, as it were, in the asymmetry of a third that “transforms” the opposition into agreement, the conflict into peace.”
What is apparent from the above is God’s intrinsic role also in human relationships as the asymmetry that allows for unity in diversity, which very much also prefigures Pope Francis’ insistence in Evangelii Gaudium (§236) that the Church, and society too, ought to be modeled on the polyhedron (where diverse parts preserve their distinctiveness while converging to form one whole) rather than the sphere (where there is total uniformity).

Peppuccio finally leads the above considerations towards reciprocity and freedom in a masterful synthesis:
“In the relationship with God, this means living the relationship with Him, diversity, within Him, in Tri-unity.

In the relationship with others, it means “allowing” for God to be among the many, as the “third asymmetrical,” so to speak. This Presence among the many makes diversity true, uniting it without annulling it. This applies to my relationship with myself. It applies to my relationship with the other and with others. Diversity is experienced as love, identity is experienced as love: diversity is experienced as identity, and vice versa. I am me in the infinite, and absolute, gift of myself: in the diversity of me with myself, experienced not as laceration but as ecstatic love. The other, whoever they are, is my giving myself made person, real because giving myself is real. And reciprocally. Without reciprocity what I say here is suffered as an impossibility that must become, but still is not, possible. History, after all, is the path towards a realization of the necessity of this reciprocity so that everyone may be themselves!

From this dialectical perspective “as three,” identity and dialogue are the same thing: they are the love by which I am myself insofar as I am not myself. They are the sign of that freedom-love which is, if I may say so, the secret of being.”
Reciprocal ecstasy, a mutual being outside oneself, for the other, as a gift for each other, bring identity and dialogue together in love, and, if I too may say so with Peppuccio, are the secret of being.

Thank you, Peppuccio, for your wisdom and love!

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

I am with Charlie Hebdo

Charlie hebdo

The heinous slaughter of twelve people at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this morning, and the serious injury of several others, are vile crimes, whose repulsive horror is made even greater by the religious motivation of their perpetrators. The gunmen responsible for this morning’s barbarity invoked the name of Allah and spouted words of vengeance.

Vengeance for what?

For cartoons.

They responded to cartoons that they found offensive by murdering and maiming their fellow brothers and sisters: blood of their blood, beloved children of the same God they delude themselves into serving.

What God could possibly want one of his children to take a gun, aim it at their own brother, pull the trigger and make a bullet rip through their sibling’s flesh, bones, veins, arteries and sinews, extinguishing their life? What insane God would that be? What an abhorrent and repulsive God indeed. The same kind of deranged lunatic of a God who would make other of his children torture their siblings with unspeakable efficiency and clinicality of method, while tricking them into thinking that they were doing it “for the greater good.” The same beast of a demiurge God who would make yet other of his children use their siblings as human shields and bomb their schools and hospitals. The same leech of a God who would have some of his children get rich at the expense of their brothers and sisters starving, homeless and hopeless, working for a pittance that would leave them worse off than if they did not work at all.

What kind of a God would that be?

Not one I recognize, but one who ought to be denied, ignored and thought dead.

My God is different though. He makes Himself vulnerable and small, dependent on the kindness of others. He responds to violence with turning His other cheek, to ridicule with words of kindness, to temptations of power with resolute humility. He is a God who calls to meekness, poverty, peace-making, to feeding the hungry, sating the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked and visiting prisoners. He is a God who chooses suffering for Himself lest He would impinge on my freedom. A God who invites and welcomes, never forces or coerces. A God who instead envelopes me with the beauty of the Universe, the truth of reason and the goodness of my brothers and sisters through whom He loves me.

And as much as seeing the cartoon at the top of this post saddens me, since it mocks Jesus, whom I love, I choose to show it here out of solidarity with my brothers and sisters at Charlie Hebdo, who were callously murdered today. I choose to support their freedom of expression, even though what it expresses is not mine, since freedom is the absolute basis of God’s love for us and our love for each other. Without freedom there can be no love, and without love all we’d have is darkness.

[UPDATE (9 January 2015): A Catalan translation of this post is now available on the Ciutat Nova blog.]

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Parable of the Good Lesbian

Good samaritan

A very good friend of mine, MK, wrote the following on Facebook a couple of days ago: “I think that if Jesus was telling the parable of the good Samaritan today, maybe it would be the parable of the good gay.” And, as soon as I saw it, I “liked” it, since it seemed to fit Jesus’ choice of profile for that particular parable character like a glove - i.e., as someone who is frowned upon, mistrusted and seen as repulsive by “good” God-fearing folk, and with whom there is an us-versus-them that needs to be undermined.

A short while later I noticed that MK’s Facebook status had received 43 comments, dominated by outrage, exhortations to read St. Paul (undoubtedly a good idea, and one, which that comment’s author should also self-apply) and a bandying-about of phrases like “the truth of Christ” (as if there were different flavors of truth). There were also reasonable comments, but these formed a small minority among the sea of tirades that followed the outrageous suggestion that homosexuals could be thought of as today’s equivalent of first-century Judea’s Samaritans.

My immediate reaction to seeing this was to look more closely at the Good Samaritan parable and get a sense of how well founded MK’s suggestion for its contemporary adaptation is - not so much for the sake of assessing its reasonableness (which had intuitive appeal to me from the start), but to get a more specific sense of its context and exegesis.

To get an idea of how Jews and Samaritans got on with each other, Blessed John Henry Newman provides the following summary, after giving an account of mutual killings between the two peoples:
“[… T]he strongest expression of hatred the Jews could invent against Christ was ‘Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil’ (John 8:48). [… I]f a Jew and a Samaritan met in a narrow way, they were particularly careful to avoid touching each fearing to receive pollution from the other.”
Saying “Samaritan” in the first century AD to an audience of Jewish lawyers (as Jesus - and, lets not forget, himself a Jew, did), seems to have been the same kind of trigger as saying “gay” is today to my friend’s “Christian” contacts. 1:0 to MK - the glove does indeed seem to fit.

Let me next take a look at how the last three popes have read this parable and see whether that sheds light on the transposition proposed by my friend.

St. John Paul II spoke at length about the Parable of the Good Samaritan in his apostolic letter on suffering, Salvifici Doloris (§28):
“The parable of the Good Samaritan belongs to the Gospel of suffering. For it indicates what the relationship of each of us must be towards our suffering neighbour. We are not allowed to “pass by on the other side” indifferently; we must “stop” beside him. Everyone who stops beside the suffering of another person, whatever form it may take, is a Good Samaritan. This stopping does not mean curiosity but availability. It is like the opening of a certain interior disposition of the heart, which also has an emotional expression of its own. The name “Good Samaritan” fits every individual who is sensitive to the sufferings of others, who “is moved” by the misfortune of another. If Christ, who knows the interior of man, emphasizes this compassion, this means that it is important for our whole attitude to others’ suffering. Therefore one must cultivate this sensitivity of heart, which bears witness to compassion towards a suffering person. Some times this compassion remains the only or principal expression of our love for and solidarity with the sufferer.

Nevertheless, the Good Samaritan of Christ’s parable does not stop at sympathy and compassion alone. They become for him an incentive to actions aimed at bringing help to the injured man. In a word, then, a Good Samaritan is one who brings help in suffering, whatever its nature may be. Help which is, as far as possible, effective. He puts his whole heart into it, nor does he spare material means. We can say that he gives himself, his very “I”, opening this “I” to the other person. Here we touch upon one of the key-points of all Christian anthropology. Man cannot “fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, 24). A Good Samaritan is the person capable of exactly such a gift of self.”
What strikes me here immediately are two things: first, the deep-seated universality of St. John Paul II’s words, addressed to “each of us,” “everyone,” “every individual,” where “Good Samaritan” status is predicated only on one’s capacity for “a gift of self.” Second, the imperative nature of his words which insist both on what we must do (being sensitive to, moved by and helping our suffering neighbors; being compassionate and self-giving) and what we are not allowed to do: be indifferent. This exegesis too easily extends to homosexuals, who are undoubtedly in a position of showing compassion to those around them and of selflessly coming to their aid.

Pope Benedict XVI adds further clarity to this universally-predicated imperative to love, in his exceptional piece of thinking: the encyclical Deus Caritas Est:
“14. [...] Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. [...] We become “one body”, completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbour are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself. [...] the “commandment” of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be “commanded” because it has first been given.

15. This principle is the starting-point for understanding the great parables of Jesus. [...] The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:25-37) offers two particularly important clarifications. Until that time, the concept of “neighbour” was understood as referring essentially to one’s countrymen and to foreigners who had settled in the land of Israel; in other words, to the closely-knit community of a single country or people. This limit is now abolished. Anyone who needs me, and whom I can help, is my neighbour. The concept of “neighbour” is now universalized, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind, it is not reduced to a generic, abstract and undemanding expression of love, but calls for my own practical commitment here and now. The Church has the duty to interpret ever anew this relationship between near and far with regard to the actual daily life of her members.”
For me, the most significant aspect of this passage is Benedict’s insistence on love being a commandment and on the justification of its imperative status being the precedent of God’s love. Since the source of this “obligation” to love is inexhaustible, its scope too is universal (as St. John Paul II already made clear). Furthermore, Benedict also calls for a keeping current of what such universality means in the present. This is very much in line with the current process of discernment underway in the Catholic Church, which is on the road to the second Synod on the Family this October. Specifically, the challenges of how to provide opportunities for homosexuals to feel part of the Church are on the table there too, which is easily read as an instance of Benedict’s “interpret[ing] ever anew this relationship between near and far.”

Finally, let’s hear what Pope Francis has to say about this parable:
“The Gospel passage from St Luke (10:25-37) tells of a certain man, half dead, who had been thrown into the street. Now by chance a priest was going down that road. A good priest, in his cassock: good, very good. He saw him and looked: I’ll be late for Mass, and he went on his way. He didn’t hear the voice of God there”. [...] It is curious to note that only a man who habitually fled from God, a sinner, the Samaritan, was the very one who perceived the voice of God. He drew near to the man. He bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast. Oh how much time he lost: he brought him to an inn, and took care of him. He lost the whole evening! In the meantime, the priest arrived in time for the Holy Mass and all the faithful were content.

Why did the priest flee from God? Because his heart was closed. When your heart is closed you cannot hear the voice of God. Instead, it was a Samaritan on a journey who saw the wounded man and had compassion. His heart was opened, he had a human heart. His humanity enabled him to draw near.

The priest had a plan for his life: he wanted to write his own history well, according to God’s ways. But he was the one writing it. However, this other sinner allowed God to write the history of his life. He changed all his plans that evening because the Lord placed before him this poor, wounded man who had been thrown out onto the street.

I ask myself and I also ask you: do we allow God to write the history of our lives or do we want to write it? This speaks to us of docility: are we docile to the Word of God? Yes, I want to be docile, but are you able to listen to his Word, to hear it? Are you able to find the Word of God in the history of each day, or do your ideas so govern you that you do not allow the Lord to surprise you and speak to you?”
What strikes me here is the supremacy of openness over righteousness. Making oneself the ultimate judge (+ jury & executioner), instead of opening oneself up to discerning the will of God and listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit through one’s conscience, leads to a spoiling even of things that are good in themselves and to an assumption of ultimate power by an imperfect subject. Instead, the admission of sinfulness, that Pope Francis (and before him the saints universally) has made for himself and that each one of us can recognize in our own lives, if we are sincere enough, helps us both to recognize brothers and sisters in all, without exception, and to open ourselves up to God’s surprises.