One Book & Three Tangerines

One Book & Three Tangerines

A.D'Avenia, UNIV Forum – March 31, 2015

Tell me, Muse, of that man, so ready at need,
who wandered far and wide,
after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy,
and many were the men whose towns he saw
and whose mind he learnt, yea,
and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the deep,
striving to win his own life and the return of his company.
Nay, but even so he saved not his company, though he desired it sore.
For through the blindness of their own hearts they perished, fools,
who devoured the oxen of Helios Hyperion:
but the god took from them their day of returning.
Of these things, goddess, daughter of Zeus,
whencesoever thou hast heard thereof,
declare thou even unto us.

Those are the opening words of the Odyssey. In the original Greek, the first word of the poem is “man”, followed by “tell me”. The poet asks the muse to tell him what is man, to provide an insightful definition. It will take a good 24 books to respond to such a question, but the poet offers us a brief initial summary. Upon this question “what is man?” depends the whole of Western culture. What is man? The poet says that he has three characteristics: to know cities, thoughts, customs; to suffer, and all this at the goal of acquiring life for himself and his companions.

The Homeric poem can tell us the essential: man is a traveler, curious to discover the world; he strives to return home, and for this, he is called to suffer. Home for him means to “save life”. But not simply to save his own life. He desires also to save the life of his companions. Man, anér in the original text, travels, discovers, returns, and suffers, all in an effort to save his life (psyché) and the return of his companions (etàiroi). Etàiros refers to someone with whom you share an ideal, an end, an objective. We translate it ascompanion in English, compagno in Italian, and compañero in Spanish. The root of this word refers to “someone with whom one shares bread”: cum (with) combined with panis (bread).

The identity of the hero Odysseus is a man who seeks to save his life, and the life of his friends, his companions. His identity is possible precisely because he is not closed in on himself, but projected outwards, towards the others: to save himself and his companions are one and the same thing. To utter the name Odysseus is to say also his companions, his friends, his homeland, and the place of his ancestors, Ithaca.

This is all quite helpful in illuminating a reality that we too often take for granted just because it’s that evident: friendship. There are some given “facts”, though primordial, need not be explained: they are the starting points of man. Today we feel the need to define what is the family, because a concept that was previously taken as evident has now become necessary to demonstrate. But you cannot demonstrate original facts, because they simply are. Nevertheless, the concept of family under discussion obliges us to take a new and deeper look at this fundamental fact. The same can be said for the concept of friendship. Is it not under attack or called into redefinition? We think so.

If I told you that I was trying to find new friends, and to do so, I was going out to the streets each day yelling out what I cooked, how I was feeling, where I was, what I was doing, and then took pictures and showed them to those I encountered, and then started tapping on the shoulder of people who attracted me and said “I like”…would I not then be redefining my concept of friendship, and what a friend is? Not someone with whom I travel in order to save my life and then return home. Not someone with whom I share my bread. No. Someone rather to “add” to my Facebook. Someone to be admired by. Someone for whom to save, not life, but appearance. Someone with whom to share, not bread, but appearance.

Perhaps it seems not so, but even the concept of friendship is under discussion in a rather subtle way. But I have 5000 friends on Facebook, and calculating that in a lifetime those worthy of such a title are around ten, then not even 500 lives would be enough to truly have 5000 friends. I don’t want to demonize social networks, which I personally use much. But I do want to focus attention on the changes that involve our perception and experience of the world. We don’t have actual friends, but apparent friends, profiles of friends.

However, friend, the Odyssey tells us, is he with whom I share my bread, not my appearance. It is he with whom I risk my life in trying to achieve something. Life, as one poet put it, “is not something, but to achieve something”. Alone? No. Together with friends in the flesh, not together with appearances of friends, profiles of friends. Appearances of friends don’t smile, cry, sweat, stink, chew. They don’t have a body, they don’t eat bread, they don’t get wounded. They do not suffer, they do not die. They are comfortable to have: there is no need to take them upon oneself or to risk one’s life for them. The most that you can do is share a video, a picture, and an “I like” with them. But life is much different. Life is the journey to return home, through a dangerous sea, where you suffer and laugh a lot, where you make discoveries, lose your way, where you would feel alone and abandoned if it were not for a friend with whom you journey and make plans, despair and rejoice together.

Another epic poem, perhaps even older than the Odyssey, is the Epic of Gilgamesh. The protagonist Gilgamesh goes in search of eternal life because his best friend, Enkidu, has died, and he cannot accept that it could happen also to him. A friend cannot disappear, be swallowed up by death, end in a vague memory, dream, appearance. Friends are not profiles, nor appearances. Friends remind us that we need eternal life, because friendship cannot end. Friendship is an original reality, an original need, an original choice. We do not choose friendship. We are chosen by and through friendship. We choose friends, not friendship. Man is given, entrusted, to another man. It is an original fact and the more original we are, the more original we will become, because friends force us to be real, to be ourselves, to follow our own identity, uniqueness, vocation. Friends pull us out of appearances and into reality. A twentieth century write put it perfectly when he said:

“Friendship is a mirror in which man is reflected. At times, in chatting with a friend, you get to know yourself and communicate with yourself. It happens that the friend is a silent figure, through whom one is able to talk to himself, to discover yet again the joy within himself, in thoughts that become clear and visible, thanks to the sounding board of the hearts of others. The friend is he who forgives your weaknesses, defects, vices; who knows and confirms your strength, your talent, your merits. And the friend is he who, though he loves you, does not hide from you your weaknesses, your defects, your vices. Friendship is based therefore on similarity, but manifests itself in diversity, contradictions, differences. In friendship, man selfishly seeks that which he lacks. And in friendship, he tends to magnificently give that which he possesses.” (Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate)

From where does this intuition come in a non-believer? From the careful observation of the reality within God’s original plan: man, Adam, doesn’t find anyone “like him” in creation. God then creates someone capable of being at his side (and it is from his side that the woman is crafted). However before stopping at the fact that this regards a woman, we must pause at the fact that man is given, entrusted, flanked by another person. Man is man for relationship. Only in relating to his fellow man does he no longer feel alone in creation. Only in relationship does man find himself. All of this comes first, even in loving relationships. Friendship is the foundation of every human relationship.

John Paul II is the model of friendship. (I recommend reading about his life: he would go canoeing with his friends when he was a priest, he would row with them. For his whole life he would gather regularly with his friends. On the morning of his assassination attempt, he had met with his dear friend Lejeune, the scientist who received the Nobel award for having discovered the cause of Down Syndrome. He maintained a beautiful correspondence with a dear friend that was recently published). The greatness of this man- his holiness- lied in his capacity to be a friend. He dedicated his time, he made friends a priority. He didn’t have appearances of friends, but real friends with whom he would write and talk. They helped him to be real, that is, to be a saint. If he didn’t have those friends, he would have never been John Paul II.

God places in our path friends who will help us to be real, and whom we will help to be real. In fact, John Paul II often cited this passage of the Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et spes: “Man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for himself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”. There is something original and revolutionary in this phrase. Who is man- the same man upon which the poem the Odyssey pondered- according to Christian revelation? Man is a creature with the capacity to determine himself. He was gifted with freedom. He was made in the image and likeness of God, and for this, he can love. Man cannot at the same time be himself without giving himself to another. Man is, in this sense, autonomous and not autonomous at the same time. He is without others because he is unique, unrepeatable, alone, irreplaceable, but he cannot be himself without others, without giving himself and being given to others.

It is not a case where we learn to say “you” before “I”. The Spanish poet Pedro Salinas wrote, “Possession of myself you gave me, giving yourself to me”. Only if someone gives himself to us, loving us, can we possess ourselves, grasp ourselves, know ourselves. The child learns to be an “I” thanks to the love of his mother and father. At the same time, if we give ourselves to someone in loving him, we can help that person become himself, and help ourselves to become truly ourselves. The same poet also wrote, “Pardon me if, in my way of loving you, I make you suffer. But it’s just that I want to extract from you the best of you”. As it is written in Revelations, at the end of our lives we will be given a white stone with our true name. It won’t be other than the visible, evident, fulfillment of that which is happening now, in this moment. All of reality is the set that God has constructed so that we may become fully ourselves. Only then, at the moment of the Apocalypse, will we realize God’s original plan, how much he has done for us to realize ourselves fully. As he said to the young Jeremiah when he lamented over not being fit to be a prophet: “Jeremiah, but I have known you before you entered the womb of your mother”. God is the guarantee and custodian of our destiny for happiness: we are the ones who choose to want it or not. Friends (relationships) are the pathways to make this occur, in giving and receiving.

This is friendship, the primary relationship: a continuous journey of going out and returning, of love given and received, of those people which life has placed at my side. Without these friends eternal life is threatened (as Gilgamesh says), because eternal life is the achievement of fulfilling oneself, the full realization of self, the fullness of self-gift. Friendship is the path through which all of this is accomplished. It’s no coincidence that comedians often come in pairs. There can be no Laurel without Hardy. Everyone, in order to be himself, needs friends. What would Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia be if Tolkien and Lewis hadn’t created their circle of friends, the Inklings, who would meet over beer (sometimes bread isn’t enough), and read their stories to each other, offering advice, improving them, and ripping them apart?

In reality, everything is relationship, because it comes from a primordial relationship, the Trinity. Look at this glass of water ( N. del T: the speaker shows the audience the glass he was offer to drink at the conference ): it is a relationship. The relationship among two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Each atom gives the other that which it needs in order to become something new, greater, fuller: water. Taken singularly, hydrogen and oxygen exist and have their dignity. But merged together in such proportions, they become the source of life on this planet. Should we not perhaps go in hunt of traces of water on other planets in the hope of finding life?

Friendship is the fundamental and original relationship because it allows reality to follow God’s original plan. It allows love to have a place in the world, and to build it up according to the original love.

My freedom does not end where another’s freedom begins. According to Christian revelation, it’s the opposite. My freedom, the possibility to fully realize myself, begins precisely where I meet the freedom of another. Unity in difference. I’m not speaking of simple irenicism or pacifism, but of the commitment to give to the other what he needs, and to receive from the other what I need. Society is born of the scarcity of goods: we are constricted to seek unity in difference, in such a way that talents “freely” circulate among men.

Only in this way does friendship expand and become the foundation of the entire society. Friendship is the model of citizenship, because it avoids every sort of utopian contract among monads that fight each other. Friendship is to save one’s own life and the life of the other, precisely in the gift of self.

It doesn’t begin with another’s fear, but commitment to expand a relationship that makes the differences even more specific, and therefore more enriching, thanks to the relationship. (This term, relationship, comes from the word referre: to bring back to someone over and over again). It does not involve “distinguish in order to unite” artificially, but seeking unity while maintaining the differences. From this perspective, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 8:1) about “efficacious charity” in its true sense (not in the moralistic sense that we have given it, as if it had to do with setting a good example). Only the love that comes from God and passes it to another person who accepts it, receives it, and directs it to another person constructs, builds up a new world that is spoken of in Revelation: “behold, I make all things new”. Everything is renewed, through us.

Benedict XVI confirms this in the opening of his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, in which he maintains that charity is the foundation of micro-relationships (friendship, family) and macro-relationships (politics, economy). Charity is the original project of God, the Trinity, that hands down this gift to man, imprints it upon his identity in such a way that this “love” becomes a priori to building up all relationships. Our prejudice is love, the only prejudice that we can have, because it is reality itself to be in this way. It is given to us as a gift, we are given to ourselves and to others as a gift, and the world is given to us as a gift.

When Saint Josemaría Escrivá spoke of loving the world passionately, he wasn’t speaking about a moral program, but of a given starting point. Only passionate love of reality allows reality to spread itself, to be itself, to fulfill itself, to flourish. Only if the artist loves his inspiration will he transform stone and color into a work of art. Only if the farmer loves his seed and his land can he transform his fields for harvest. Only if the teacher loves his student will the student open himself to receive what he needs. It is then only if the starting point is passionate love can reality be and become itself. (Passion means either an erotic transport or suffering; the transport of the relationship or the tiresome effort involved in the relationship). To the man of Eden, a task has been given: to preserve and cultivate the garden, to protect and develop it.

We Christians at times water down revelation to a moral program when it deals rather with the movement that God has impressed upon this earth from its beginning. We are privileged to be inserted into this movement of His. Only he who allows himself to be caught by this movement can bring reality to fulfillment- his own fulfillment and that of others. And to transform his own life, and the life of his friends (all those who have been entrusted to him and to whom he has entrusted himself) is a masterpiece of God. And not only when things are going well, but even and above all in situations of weakness, struggle, abandonment, solitude, sickness; with courage to take up these situations, giving and receiving whatever the need may be. Christ said it clearly: “Without me, you can do nothing.” He is speaking precisely of this foundation, without which each action would lose its consistency, become mere appearance, a semblance- though charming and fascinating- but without the flavor of true life, eternal life, life that never dies.

Who is man? Pilate, when he presented the flagellated Christ whom we recall on Good Friday, said, “behold, man”. He is no longer the hero of the Odyssey, even though he also knew the city of men, their thoughts, and had suffered greatly in this journey of the Incarnation. But to what end? Even he did it to save the life of his companions, but with an absolute novelty: renouncing his own. He said to those who killed him, “You are not the ones to take my life, but it is I who give it”. When he is on the cross, they mock him saying, “He was capable of saving the life of others and he’s not capable of saving his own”.

Behold, the absolute novelty of Christianity. We can give of ourselves to the others because Christ first gave of himself totally. We can actually do this, if we let ourselves be conquered by his life, if we let this life penetrate us. Odysseus was saved and his companions died, despite their attempts to live. They perished because they had committed the sacrilege of eating the sacred sun cows. Christ does the opposite: he gives up saving himself and saves us, precisely because we rebelled against his Father. The true man, the true hero, is before our eyes. He comes to forgive us and give of himself in order to save his companions. He calls the apostles friends: “I have called you friends because I have told you all the things of my Father”. That passage of his deepest identity (remember that even Homer asked the Muse to tell him about man), of being the Son and showing the Father in this way, cost Him his life, and He saved us.

Friendship, according to Christ’s definition, is the giving of that which is most one’s own, and of which we have the greatest need: the Father. One of his own, Phillip, said to him, “Show us the Father, and that will be enough”. The response heard is, “He who sees me, sees the Father”. In the relationship with Him, He gives us what we need most: sonship with the Father, which He has in essence. This is how Christ saves us, having made us companions, friends, with whom to break bread at the same table. Is it not in this way that the two friends of Emmaus, sorrowful after His death, recognize Him? Not only when He passed through this earth, but even today, He himself becomes “bread” for his company.

We have the most dangerous potential for the world, because we have an absolute novelty to present. Those who saw the first Christians would say, look how they love each other. Their friendship was evident, visible. It was already the Apocalypse, and thus people were attracted to and by God, and they drew near to the primitive Church. Hence Nietzsche wrote that he would convert to Christianity the day he “saw upon the face of Christians, the face of the redeemed”. And why did he not see that? Did he not want to see it, or did he not encounter anyone capable of showing it?

Those who see us: what do they see? Do they see our friendship?

Who would give his life for 5,000 Facebook friends? Then why 5,000? I have not yet understood…

And what is this giving of life if not dedicating time - that time which, once given, doesn’t ever return, and is thus a small death? Yes, because there is no love greater than this: to give one’s life for one’s friends. Real life, and real lives, without appearances. This is the gift and the task of our life: to receive friendship from God in order to give friendship to the world, loving it passionately, no matter the cost. He who has passion must also suffer, because he will have a large and open heart. He who does not have passion shuts down his own life, and that of others.

Sometimes, it can be something quite small: a book or even three tangerines. I’d like to conclude now with two personal stories that recently happened in my life.

A girl who works in the oncology wing of a hospital wrote to me explaining that she met a boy who was undergoing chemotherapy, but was without much hope. She decided to buy him a book as a small gift. The book she gave was a book I had written, titled, That which is Hell, is Not (Ciò che inferno non è). The boy died a few weeks later. His mother gave the book back to the girl saying that it was right for her to have it. The book had parts underlined in it and the boy’s mother said that it had given her son hope, even when there was none. In this story, each one did what they could for the other, always with the utmost respect. Death was thus transformed into something less difficult, less bitter, and maybe even a moment of hope.

The other day when I was on my way home, it was raining and I was cold, like everyone else at the end of the workday. I looked at the screen of my smartphone, like many others. On the street, there was a woman asking for alms. Some didn’t even notice her, too focused on their phones. Others avoided her, while others looked at her without doing anything. Suddenly, another woman walked in front of me as she just exited a shop where she had bought some fruit (that’s how I witnessed the scene). She bent over and pulled out three tangerines and said to the beggar, “these are for you to eat, not to give to bad people”.

In that book, in those tangerines, I saw the friendship of God for and among men, truly. Appearances vanished. And everyone - on that street, in every street of the world- seemed to be more real, truer friends.