The Great Prayer
Notes from a Lenten talk by Luigi Giussani, San Vittore al Corpo Parish, Milan, March 22, 1996. A contribution in preparation for the XXIV Italian Eucharistic Congress, to be held in Bari, May 21-29, and concluded by Pope Benedict XVI
I thank those who have organized this meeting for the provocation implied in the title. “The Eucharist: The Great Prayer.” Sincerely, it is the first time I’ve heard this connotation, so sober and essential. I trust the Lord will allow me to communicate to you some of the thoughts that these words aroused in me, because it is a provocation that summarizes all that constitutes the expression of a man who addresses the Father, having encountered the Son.
1. The Eucharist: God’s method
Allow me to begin by reading to you a passage from Leopardi’s Zibaldone: “In this present state of things, we have no great evils, it’s true, but no good either; and this lack is a very great, continuous, intolerable evil, which makes our whole life painful, where partial evils afflict only a part of it. Ambition, and therefore the most ardent desire for happiness, the perpetual and essential companion of human life, if not calmed by a living pleasure, cruelly afflicts our existence, even when we have no other evils. And evils are less harmful to happiness than boredom; they are rather at times useful for happiness. Indifference is not the state of man; it is quite contrary to his nature and therefore to his happiness” (Zibaldone, 1554-5).1 And Leopardi wrote to a French friend in 1823, “If happiness does not exist, then what is life?” For happiness is the aim of this unsleeping dynamism that is man.
The phrase from Zibaldone reminded me of the fact that man cannot fathom the Mystery. Natural religiosity reaches out to acknowledge the existence of an ultimate quid, of an ultimate reality. Kafka said, “An aim exists.” But where is the road? “There is no road.”2 Man cannot fathom God as the meaning of life; the meaning of life is unfathomable. The questions we ask about the meaning of life, when we do ask them, are more investigative questions rather than questions about the truth. For the question about the truth should of its very nature be a religious question. If it were a question of getting to know God with a definition, then we should find it, but to claim to be able to define God would be to extinguish the question. In the end, it would even be a blasphemy to try to come to grips with, to understand, to define the Mystery, at least as far as one is able… unless it reveals Itself! Unless the Mystery reveals Itself, It can’t be understood. If the Mystery reveals Itself, then life willingly accepts to be lived as expectation and to favor, in this sense, a childlike simplicity in anyone. This is why, in chapter eleven of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus addresses His great prayer to the Father, “I thank you Father, because You have revealed these things to the humble, to the simple, and not to those who think they know and are able to know through research. For thus it pleased You, Father.”3
God revealed Himself. The expectation that Leopardi always stresses, that each one of us easily feels, the need the heart has for truth, has found its answer (although one can adhere even to this with a certain indifference, as Zibaldone says. It is as if an ultimate lack of seriousness prevents us from taking advantage of what the heart harbors, of what relationships demand of interiority, of delicacy of capacity for forgiveness, of communicated joy).
God has revealed Himself, the Mystery has unveiled Itself. What the word “Eucharist” invites us to identify is precisely the method with which God reveals Himself. With what method has God decided to reveal Himself to man and to the world, to man’s existence and to history? We willingly recall the fact that the Mystery, as method of self-communication, identifies Itself with a time and a space. It is as if the Mystery were always seeking to identify Itself with a time and a space, with a present that is presence, namely an event (as we now begin to hear more often, thank God).
In this sense, our meditation recalls the inevitable figure of Abraham, as a beginning, since it is in the event of Abraham that God’s contact with man gave rise to a road–a never-ending road that will come to an end with world history–and has come to meet us. “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your homeland and your Father’s house, for a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name so famous that it will be used as a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who slight you, and all the tribes of the earth will bless themselves by you.’ [What a universal significance has this event: “all the tribes of the earth will bless themselves by you”!] So Abram went as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. … The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘It is to your descendants that I will give this land.’ [It is the sign of the world.] So Abram built there an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him.”4
After Abraham, our meditation moves to the figure of Moses, who hears from the burning bush the name that he will take to his brothers in Egypt and tell them what Yahweh is asking them: “The God of your fathers has sent me to you.”5 The God of your fathers, that God who had revealed Himself and consistently reveals Himself through an event that becomes a history, an event continually present. “This is my name forever.”6 [Here, too, we have a universal relevance.]
Until the presence of Christ stops us–our eyes and our heart, as John’s Gospel reminds us–this is the work of God, “to believe in Him whom you have sent,”7 because “I and the Father are One.”8 The evening shortly before He was arrested (the Apostles’ silence was tense, far more grave than usual), at one point in His discourse, that man said, “Without Me, you can do nothing,”9 you are nothing. Quid est veritas? What is truth? Because truth is the meaning of life, truth is the only thing Leopardi would willingly call a synonym of happiness. What is the truth of the world, of history, of man and of his existence? Quid est veritas? Vir qui adest.10 The things more capable of words in us are those that we force ourselves to repeat most often because, every time we look at them, their perspective widens; it cannot be stopped. This is the work of God, this is the meaning of the world: “To believe in the One He has sent.” In fact, the truth is this man who is present.
I would now like to draw your attention and mine to a corollary as regards the event as the method of communication that God used in history (the event of Abraham, of Moses and of Christ: it is history that flows into one, the river that flows towards its estuary). It’s a detail, but it’s extremely important, as I see it, and not only as regards the history of human thought–whose greatest, most serious temptation has always been to sever the spiritual from the ephemeral contingence; and the greater a thinker’s mind and heart, the more he was prone to cry out this separation as the problem of the purity of reason, of the truth of man. If the work of God is to believe in Him whom the Father has sent–in that man!–then it means that the reality of the senses, flesh and blood, are not limitations, are not opposed to the ultimate true reality, to the eternal, to the Spirit.
John and Andrew were silent, overawed by the evidence of that look that was speaking, a look that spoke to them that afternoon. Zacchaeus was won over by that man whom he had heard of, and who stopped before the sycamore tree and said to him, “Zacchaeus, I am coming to your house.” The Samaritan woman came across that man, a Jew, seated at a well, on the other side: vir qui adest. The truth, much more evidently than before, is no longer the outcome of a fortunate, tortuous research into the Mystery, so that man gives up when he is too tired to go on. The reality of the senses is no longer contrary. Precisely with Christ, born of Mary, as a reality of the senses, there is no opposition between the two ontologies of reality, but rather He is the unity between them.
The Hebrew religion, like all authentic religions, has the concept of offering as the greatest image of prayer. What does “offering” mean, as normally the highest form of prayer in the religious experience of a people? That everything, everything consists of God, even the earth and the stones, even flesh and blood; everything consists of God. Of Christ, it will be said, “In Him, everything consists.” But this is not yet enough. Offering is not only this realization that everything consists in God (which in a certain sense does not nullify man’s smallness before the power of Being, but makes man perceive it), but implies another aspect of feeling, as the opposite: the desire that God’s face reveal Itself. It is a twofold feeling that makes the offering “flourish.” If everything is made of God, then let God reveal Himself, in everything.
So the great prayer of offering expresses itself through a concrete reality. From lambs and bulls, symbols of the consistency of man’s possession of reality, we pass to the offering of the circumstances and of the instant, symbols of the very tissue of life and of man’s whole existence. The voices of our literature come to our help once again. What appears as beauty in a woman, Leopardi says in Aspasia, is something that lies beyond her face of flesh and shines through it, so that man, “still in his bodily embraces, bows and loves”11 this that lies beyond, within and beyond the dearest semblances, while the woman, the object of so much ardor, does not understand. However, it is a breath, a hint of truth that comes even from the depth of ancient pagan thought, when, as we have seen, Seneca writes, “you must live for another if you wish to live for yourself.”12 If you want the truth of yourself and your relationships, you must affirm another.
The summit of this sublime thing, this “gesture” in the original, literal sense of the word, the summit of offering was indicated by Jesus (it is what makes the offering of the poor widow who gave her mite–because she had no more to give–identical with the generosity of someone who gives his life for his greatest friend, God): to offer is to acknowledge that everything is God’s, made of God, God’s, belonging to God, consists of God, is God’s, everything. As a friend of mine said, in her suffering, “Vocation–being called, recalled to Christ–is like a light that lightens up the dark night of the circumstances.” Because the circumstances are deaf and opaque, and the instant is nothing: offering invades this, this comma, this yod,13 this instant, acknowledging that it consists of God, thus allowing us to feel it as an expression of our nature. The instant is the first measure of my human expression.
Let’s move on now to another reflection. In the supremely expressive phenomenon of humanity that is offering, the highest point is the offering of Christ, the man most aware of and who most loves the Father and His creatures. “Christe cunctorum dominator alme.”14 The Eucharist, “the great prayer,” is the summit of man’s offering to God, because in it Christ’s self-giving up to death on the Cross defeats injustice as the origin of history, which seems an injustice of God, and is instead the original rebellion of man, who claims to be like God and as time passes becomes the channel of lies, of the devil, of the father of lies, Satan.
There is a profound difference between man’s evil and the evil that is born in Satan and of Satan. A girl asked me the other day, “So the first sin, the original sin, was the sin of man who claimed to be like God, who affirmed his ‘I’ before God?” I answered “Yes” at once, but then I thought: there is a difference, and the difference is that the original evil, the original sin, that origin that cannot be imagined, but is so real that without it as a hypothesis it would be impossible to understand man and the world, was Adam and Eve’s affirming or wishing to affirm themselves, on Satan’s instigation; but there is something else in this event, because in Adam and Eve there was something that they inherited from this abominable being, from the father of lies, as Jesus called him, and it is the challenge to God. It was not just a wish for self-affirmation before God; the wickedness was in challenging God. The challenge to God, as wickedness, cannot be of man; it is the malice typical of Satan himself. So I can understand original sin as this poison injected into man’s nature, into man’s blood: the challenge to God. Forgiveness for self-affirmation can be almost conceivable, because we, too, have to forgive those who wrong us, but not for the challenge to God! Here forgiveness is not possible; paradoxically, something more is needed, something indecipherable, unthinkable for man. Mercy is needed. St. Augustine spoke of “felix culpa.”15
In Christ’s offering, carnal reality, bread and wine, become the mystery of faith–namely the body and blood of the incarnate Word; they literally coincide with the Mystery of the Son of God. The Mystery coincides with the sign: where is this supreme, adorable unity, which can be affirmed only with fear and trembling, the Mystery, identified with the sign, so that the sign, the sensible reality, the flesh and bone are not contrary to the spirit–where does this happen, above all, if not in the Eucharist?
One last thought. The Eucharist implies the triumph of the truth in man, because it acknowledges the apparently ephemeral instant as an expression of God. I always quote a friend of mine who, writing from far away, writes in all his letters of the “density of the instant.” Time and space, for Christ, died and risen, are no longer a limitation; the instant is neither a prison nor a tomb. For us, too, time and space are the instruments of our wealth of expression–without them we would be unable to express ourselves, our word would not be able to exist; but at the same time, they close us in: time and space are our opportunity for speaking, but at the same time they close us in. For Christ, died and risen, time and space are instead no longer a limitation, but divine “reason” for Him to be present. The divine reason for which He becomes presence to me and to all of us brothers is this instant or this circumstance, without the need to add anything else.
Thus, the Eucharist becomes the beginning of Christ’s triumph in time and space, in history. The Eucharist is the beginning of the enjoyment of the answer of the Father, who cannot be continually provoked in His children, if not by acceding to their request, as chapters eleven and eighteen of Luke’s Gospel tell us. At the same time, the Eucharist is the defeat of lies, as injustice and sorrow without hope and therefore without reason. The Eucharist is Christ died and risen; it is the meaning of Christ’s Resurrection in every instant of time and space, within history, and firstly within the existence of my life. In every instant, the meaning of me who stop to touch this fleeting thing is so inane, so impotent! The meaning of Christ’s Resurrection is in every instant of time and space, in my existence, and in our history; in every instant, as the book, The Russian Pilgrim says. But we have to remember this ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times a day, even ten thousand times, until the remembrance of the Risen Christ becomes familiar. The formula to repeat is, “Christ on the Cross for my sins.” Christ’s Resurrection is the dense meaning of every moment that passes.
3. “Called into one body”
According to the history set out by the Father and set in action by the Spirit, Christ implies in the definition of His personality all those who are called. Perhaps we need to go back and read Jesus’ prayer in chapter seventeen of John’s Gospel. In the definition of His personality, Christ implicates all those who have been chosen. “Father, the hour has come, glorify Your Son; because the aim of history is My glory. You gave Me power over all men so that I might give man eternal life. This is eternal life: that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”16 Then there is a hint at this selection which, in a time fixed by the Spirit of the Father, by the will of the Father, goes on working out this choice. In history, this choice is operated by the almighty power of God who makes everything, in Baptism.
So the subject of the Eucharist, according to its overall structure, is, as we say in theology, the “Mystical Christ,” the reality whose total fulfillment will come on the last day and will be the final glory of Christ, in that mercy that will bring everything to completion. But He is already present in the history of men, men who reflect the look in the eyes of John and Andrew, as on that afternoon, in the house near the Jordan, directed at Jesus; men whose faces will reflect the eyes of John and Andrew, every moment, and every day offer themselves as possible love for Christ, because, instant by instant, time is love for Christ, detectable as the only meaning of the uncertainties, the mistakes, the abandoned, bewildered children, the mature awareness of the man who weeps for the world’s persecutions, for his loneliness, for his estrangement from the world, or who weeps for the joy of the “people,” because, as each day draws to an end, this lies, as drops amongst the sea of tears.
The subject of the Eucharist is this Mystical Christ, whose fulfillment comes in that mysterious assimilation, thanks to an infinite power, of those whom the Father chooses, clasps to Christ, presents to Christ and Christ clasps hold of them; in Baptism He clasps them to Himself, and they become members of His body, an absolutely new reality: “Don’t you know that you are members one of another?”17
If these were only words, then since it is all pure words, there would be nothing but destructive cynicism.
This people, thus built up in history, whether it be great as in the Middle Ages or almost suffocated–like a small forgotten parish, where the priest has twenty or thirty people going to Mass on Sunday–how does it present itself, what social aim has it, socially what does it do (there is no place for a ministry to represent them, no trade union that asks to be guided by their heart, by their presence, by their faith)? St. Paul says, “May the peace of Christ reign in your hearts because this is what you are called to in one body, and be thankful.”18 Peace is the product of the presence of this “one body.” Whether at the time of Cluny’s greatness or at the time of Péguy, the Christian people is in the world as the coefficient of peace, the source of peace, the stabilizing factor that ensures peace, the maker of peace. It seems to me from reading many pages of our Cardinal’s writings that this is his most intimate, secret and impassioned thought. The coefficient of peace: peace that cannot be stopped, that cannot be blocked, but which continually launches people into an encounter that values everything and everyone, and which sustains our companionship.
Allow me to wish you for Easter what I would wish for everyone: hope is a certainty in the future in virtue of a reality that is present. Not any presence whatsoever, but the presence of Christ, made known by Our Lady, which makes us certain of the future, and therefore an incessant journey is possible, for young and old, for adults and youngsters alike, an incessant journey, a striving without limits, starting from the certainty that since He possesses history, He will reveal Himself in history. This expectation is a moment of the day in which we are almost continually solicited by the whole of Christian history to participate: it is the Eucharist, the offering of Christ, died and risen, to the Father, because Christ belongs to the Father, and I belong to Him in the hours and minutes of this day.
1 G. Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, Mondadori, Milano 1937 (1994), p. 551.
2 Cf. F. Kafka, Il silenzio delle sirene. Scritti e frammenti postumi (1917-1924), Feltrinelli, Milano, 1994, p. 91.
3 Cf. Mt 11:25-26.
4 Gen 12:1-7.
5 Ex 3:13.
6 Ex 3:15.
7 Jn 17:3.. meglio Jn 6:29.
8 Jn 10:30.
9 Jn 15:5.
10 The reference is to an anagram quoted by St. Augustine: “Quid est veritas? (Est) vir qui adest.” which means “What is truth? A man who is here present.”
11 Leopardi, op.cit.
12 Lucius Annaeus Seneca, (Seneca the Younger), “Letter to Lucilius,”
13 The author refers to yod, the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
14 “Christ dominator of everyone and giver of life.” Hymn for the dedication of a church , Ambrosian Rite, 5th century.
15 “Happy fault”– a phrase attributed to St. Augustine. Cf., The Exultet from the Easter Vigil Liturgy, Roman Missal.
16 Cf. Jn 17:1:3.
17 Cf. Rom 12:5; Eph 4:25.
18 Col 3:15.