Sunday, December 19, 2010


Egg tempera on gesso panel, 1957
In this season of Advent--which is ALL about waiting--we have Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Ha Jin’s Waiting, T. S. Eliot’s “Wait without hope” to keep us company. We wait for the results of the biopsy, the door to open, the phone to ring, the sun to come up; for the curtain to rise, the check to clear, the flowers to bloom, the egg to hatch; for the pain to stop, for Christmas eve, to fall asleep. One thing we don’t wait for—can’t “wait” for—is to wake up. Maybe in his mercy God gave us sleep because without a 7- to 8-hour break every day from the tension of perpetual waiting, we’d lose it. Maybe He needs us to get out of the way for at least a third of the time, with our fear and fretting and scheming and "work," so He can give us what we need for free:

In vain is your earlier rising,
your going later to rest,
you who toil for the bread you eat;
when he pours gifts on his beloved while they slumber...
--Psalm 127:2

I once saw an exhibit of artwork from the early 1900’s by patients at a German insane asylum. One was a plain piece of cheap lined paper, framed, on which was written in pencil the same phrase over and over and over and over. The same phrase, impossible to make out, ran in one continuous line from left to right, and from top to bottom, line after line after overlapping line: the borne-down-upon pencil, the obsessive-compulsive copying out, a plea to the universe—as if the person’s entire being had become concentrated in that one impastoed prayer that looked like receding waves, or ripples on a shore. The artist was a woman named  Emma Hauck, it turned out, and she was writing  from the asylum to her husband: “Sweetheart Come,” the placard read. She had to have written “Sweetheart Come” tens of thousands of times, and you were left to wonder whether he ever did come, knowing that, even if so, he probably didn’t come nearly often enough, or for a long, long time. 

Emma Hauck Sweetheart Come (Letter to husband)
ca. 1909 pencil on writing paper 6 7/16 x 8 1/4 in.
If beauty is truth, and truth beauty, then maybe waiting, I'm thinking as Christmas approaches, has its own kind of beauty. I'm thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit priest and contemplative poet who carried a lifelong torch for another man--"Time's eunuch," he called himself in  "Thou Art Indeed Just, Lord"--but who also stayed faithful to his vows and left us, among others, the wrenching poems known as TheTerrible Sonnets. Of Mary Beal, who came to the East Mojave for health reasons around 1910, fell in love with the desert, stayed for decades in a rustic hut collecting botanical specimens, and once waited 26 years for a particular cactus to bloom (or at least that's the way I remember it from a pamphlet I picked up when I camped there one spring a decade ago). Of Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation (CL) who in 1953 played a Beethoven concerto for a group of students, one of whom, a woman named Milene de Gioia, fell into uncontrollable weeping, and for whom he then proceeded to search for the next 42 years.

Here's his description of that day in the classroom, and some of what happened afterward.  

"I let her go on a little, then I said: ‘You can see well the difference  between one soul and another, one sensibility and another, between one heart and another.’ Those others certainly wouldn’t have cried. Therefore, from that moment on, this piece  became more meaningful for me. The longing that the fundamental theme generates, it’s such a longing, that for a sensibility like Milene’s, it made her burst into tears–this longing is man’s emblem of waiting for God.”

“I don’t remember anything more about her,” Fr. Giussani said one day, “not even her features as we walked along the road together. Even the memory of her features is just a blip now, vivid, but limited to a blip. For forty-two years, on every vacation, I asked the kids [i.e., his companions in the movement] to look for her in the phone books of all the regions of Italy, but I never found her in forty-two years”

Until that day at the end of March, 1996, which, with Camus, we can call “the beautiful day”: his ex-student was tracked down and invited. “They went to get her at 7:30 and, when she entered the house, in the dense crowd there at the door, I had no problem recognizing her–she was just the same! …Last night, I was telling the kids on M. Street this, and I said, ‘Kids, for forty-two years I’ve been waiting to see again a girl who I last saw when was she sixteen years old! Forty-two years of searching! So, then, tell me please, if virginity is something that forgets women. Can you imagine a fact of this kind? No, you can’t imagine it.’ And, in fact, what made it possible to wait forty-two years was a simple thing, totally positive, like a gift from God! And then, something absolutely gratuitous happens, totally gratuitous, that is, with no kind of self-serving calculation . Forty-two years! Tell me please if this isn’t a fairy tale!”

Milene’s memories of that March evening remain vivid: “I wasn’t quite sure where I was going, and then, those winding little roads in the fog to Gudo; it was a real adventure. As soon as I arrived, everyone welcomed me exuberantly. I felt like the prodigal son returning home after many years.” At that moment, their story was like an underground river that finally flows to the surface...

Milene, in the minds of many CL members, your name is tied to the episode of Beethoven. How did you meet Fr. Giussani, and what impression did he make?

It’s hard for me to limit my encounter with him to one episode. The first impression was that we’d known each other forever, and thus that he was talking to me about Something we had in common. More recently, I’ve discovered an expression he used often, which for me was mysterious and subject to suspicion: the correspondence to the expectations of the heart. I believe that this was the dynamic.

What most struck you?

On the personal level, two characteristics struck me: on the one hand, his energy directed toward action and the world, and on the other, his generous amiability, the tenderness without sentimentalism or sickly sweetness, that moved his way of acting.

During an RAI television program marking Fr. Giussani’s 80th birthday, an ex-student of his, a well-known journalist and writer, asserted that Fr. Giussani wanted in some way to seize the freedom of the students, by the force of his strong personality…

For me, I can say that one thing implicit in his way of looking at us kids was this: the adventure is yours; you’re free! With Fr. Giussani, we enjoyed the sense of the challenge that overcomes diffidence toward reality and doesn’t make false claims. Now I know that his was the most authentic form of love: openness to the mystery and the ultimately good destiny of the other person.

What else do you remember of Fr. Giussani at Berchet?

Even back then, and for good reason, I was fascinated by the depth and breadth, the sapiential aspect of his knowledge, that made his cultural language always lively and generative in the direct impact of listening. For example, music has remained for me a fact of choral communion rather than one of individual fruition.

We’ve read that you had lost touch with each other for forty years. What followed that first brief experience with Student Youth [GS]?

Many years of separation in family and professional commitments passed, until one day, while I was reading in the newspaper about the work of Fr. Giussani, I had the sharp, lucid perception that it wasn’t over, that we’d meet again! And I immediately felt peaceful and glad with this absolute certainty, even though when I’d gone to hear a talk of his at the San Babila Theatre in Milan in the winter of 1992 [Fr. Giussani had given a talk on “Faith and Morality” to a big crowd at the San Carlo Cultural Center, now the CMC], I hadn’t managed to reach him.

Then, in the mid-1990s, you met again. Can you summarize in one sentence the history of that relationship? What remains with you of Fr. Giussani?

The awareness of a bond, established in adolescence, that would come to fulfillment in the maturity of years and trials, restoring to me the face of Jesus, a friendship, and faith in a “faithful God.” I’ve never forgotten to confide in Him, no matter what the circumstance, and I’ve come to understand that He is the one who orders every circumstance."

You can read the whole transcript, from the CL magazine Traceshere. But with December 25th fast approaching, what strikes me as truly sublime isn't so much that after all that time Milene and Fr. Guissani were reunited as that all that time he kept searching. So whatever you might be waiting for, don't lose heart! Fr. Giussani again laid eyes on his "girl." For all his anguished longing, Gerard Manley Hopkins could write "The world is charged with the grandeur of God." The cactus bloomed for Mary Beal.

And whether the cactus blooms or not, Advent assures us--Christ will come again.

Sclerocactus johnsonii


  1. "So, then, tell me please, if virginity is something that forgets women." This is as astounding as Charles Peguy's infatuation for Blanche Raphael...

  2. I know, isn't that beautiful? In fact, I'm thinking, virginity may "remember" women BETTER or MORE. Because how quickly, the other way, people seem to forget...

  3. "And whether the cactus blooms or not, Advent assures us--Christ will come again." -- Amen. Come, Lord Jesus, in the midst of our desires and longing.


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