A conversation between
The journey that puts us
Valentina Valentini and
Don Cosimo Scordato
on the road to beauty, truth, justice
Valentina Valentini: The question we ask in this issue is: “What do we/I need?”. From the Christian viewpoint, what is necessary to give sense to an individual’s existence, what responsibilities does each person have towards himself and towards society?
Don Cosimo Scordato: The answer to the first question stems from what during baptism is called apotaxis and suntexis. Apotaxis is keeping away from or refusing things that harm us, and suntexis is participating in what promotes beauty in our lives. When we speak of restrictions that make us aware of a feeling of being imprisoned, whether it is inside or it comes from outside to mortify our fantasy, our creativity, the term we use is satàn, which is a Hebrew/Jewish word we have translated as Satan and personified. In fact satàn means deterrent. So the style of life we are invited to follow is one where we remove all the restraints that imprison our existence and compromise its fulfillment both on an individual level and in society as a whole. Let’s consider financial speculation, social inequalities, the delay that is forced on people’s development because of unequal opportunities. Then the term satàn which we/I rebuke refers to the whole process of liberation, which is permanent, which lasts the whole of our lives. We never finish liberating ourselves and allowing ourselves to be freed, both internally and externally. Fate does not exist for a Christian, there is no destiny that cannot be removed or overcome. All processes of liberation therefore can be adopted in this journey that must clear the road and allow each person to experiment her/his existence as an existence free from and free to-. In this experience of liberation, the term which is in play and again risks being personalised, is diaballo, the devil, In reality diaballo means failure, the breach that can slip in between us, between the conscious and the unconscious, between ego and super ego, between ourselves reaching for something that interests us and the resistance we notice inside. And the breakdowns may not only be on a personal level, but also on a wider scale, between populations. In this dynamism of removing deterrents of various types, physical, psychological, financial, economic, of attempting the possibilities of trying out ways of bringing people together, sumballein, in which nobody loses their identity: on the contrary, everyone is enriched, projecting themselves together with others. The freedom from becomes freedom to build bigger and bigger meeting places, putting together different peoples’ own originality, different, if we wish to think in a wider geopolitical perspective. I believe this intense activity can never come to an end because we constantly need to remove obstacles and build opportunities to construct together where we are all healthy givers because everyone of us has something to offer the others. Yes, these are the dynamics I would like to relaunch in a secular way in the widest sense of the word in order to create contents that can become actions. How many times do we discover that the best way to overcome difficulties is not fighting against them, but offering alternatives. The real struggle against the mafia we believe, we have discovered, is creating models of working together, developments in which people participate, in which they are creative and that become the alternative to violent or aggressive actions, monopolisation, typical of mafia type behaviour. To struggle by proposing an alternative is not easy. Those who work in a social context, from religious evidence , must show that reality can be different. Free oneself from, in an individual context, and free oneself in order to build a social community. But in this movement there is a conflict: what I do for myself does not coincide with what I could do for others. How do we overcome this conflict?
V.V.: From the Christian- Catholic perspective how do you solve the breakdown between the individual and society, between the individual’s happiness and communal happiness? The individual has to postpone the need for happiness to life after death, while on the Earth he/she lives in a society that produces suffering due to the social/economic inequalities…?
C.S.: The attitude is to anticipate or in any way overcome the conflicts when they occur, not only on an individual level. We need to unite forces, this makes it easier to overcome an obstacle of which the proportions go beyond the sphere of the individual. What makes it easier for everyone is to get used to dreaming of something. As Hélder Câmara says, a dream, if only one person dreams it, remains a fantasy. If there are several of us, it begins to become a contagious potential that had not been accounted for previously. If we learn to dream of a different reality, if we glimpse possibility, beauty, feasability then the step towards making it become reality is easier.
The easy temptation of a person giving a sermon for Mass is to start preaching, begin pointing one’s finger: you are wrong….. Decades ago I learnt not to accuse anybody. The moment of the sermon, of celebration, is the moment for future perspectives, it is the moment for looking up and ahead, and it requires continual exercise. We must work so that the present, which at times is also tough and heavy, does not condition our possibility of flying high and spreading our wings and saying: “Look, we know this reality, it surrounds us, but we must think of a new world”. Not of life after death, I never speak of the afterlife. What can reality be if we are not able to unlock certain wicked, shameful mechanisms and give space to dynamics of creativity and beauty that surround us? This believing in something new and different is for me the real movement of reaching beyond the hard realities of life, which sometimes makes its weight and resistance come to bear. If we fight one against the other, in the end we remain on the same level, we neutralise each other. Instead, faced with something that doesn’t convince us, we need to invent diversity, meaning transcendence of what exists at present, and a new possibility which needs to be let loose, in order to avoid running up against the difficulties of everyday life. What we are interested in is not to save existing conditions, but to go beyond, The terms future and becoming are not the same: they must be analyzed. Futurum comes from fusis, in the sense that Nature has its own methods for ripening, but the “Avvenire” is not only the fruit which is in front of me, it can be something which is not fruit of what exists now but which stimulates us to go beyond present reality. This dynamics regarding the future means coming to terms with a developing reality, which is slow in its process, because this is ongoing. But there is also an “Avvenire” – which liturgically we refer to as advent- which does not come from the past, it is a liberation which makes us lighter, and so able to go forward and higher, according to a very dynamic and outstretching concept of the evolutionary process. Even the most wonderful achievements are never enough: we always have to start again from the target we have reached, because every target is never the last but only transitionary helping to lead me forward and higher. I believe Massimo Cacciari wrote something similar in his book L’angelo necessario (Adelphi, 1986), where he comments on Paul Klee. He speaks of this necessity of the Angel. The wing strike we must succeed in giving to the status-quo so as not to remain trapped in the complacency of existence.
V.V. Being a Christian means doing good and avoiding evil, respecting certain rites such as baptism, participating in the sacrements, accepting the truth of the Faith written in the Sacred Scriptures, following a tradition: that of the Catholic Church, accepting its plan, being part of its community. I am aware this is greatly simplifying a complex subject, but I’d like to ask: in this sense is the path already preordained?
C.S.: The tradition, as in my opinion it should be understood, is not the repetition of the same thing. In the case of the Christian tradition, it is the sum of all the varitations that have been added century after century. When we speak of tradition, what do we mean? Do we refer to Agostino? The Scolastica? The Reform? The Council of Trent? After the Council of Trent? Everything that has taken place over centuries makes us face up to continual changes. The so-called tradition never repeats the same formulas, it is the continual development of ways of thinking, of acting and of understanding the allegiance to Christ in different ways.
V.V. Speaking of tradition I also refer to the rituals, to the ceremonies that mark the life of a Christian and offer a framework to the regular celebrations of daily existence. Those who believe, in this sense find a direction to follow which allows them to participate in a community. Furthermore, according to the Catholic faith the figure of a guardian angel guides us in difficult times and protects us in dangerous situations.
C.S.: We don’t follow an established order, we constantly live with the quaestio, and we never finish an answer before beginning a new one, The theological summae are hundreds of questions which defer to the next one, The life of the believer is not organised. Certainly it would be easy to say: “I have my guarantees for the present, for the past, for the future, I can take it easy.” But there are no guarantees of this kind. Faith is giving space so God’s new gifts can become a permanent surprise that keeps our attention alive and keeps us reaching out for fulfillment, which is never achieved but which we are all striving for.
Ceremonies are part of an identifying continuum in the life of Christians, shared by Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox church. For example we all celebrate the baptism. We all have something in common, but the way to understand all this must be continually thought over, because the present situation is always asking new questions. So why did the Second Vatican Council thoroughly renew the Liturgy? We were used to Latin and then Italian was used, and new rites were introduced in the celebrations. At the same time it became apparent that the celebrating subject was not the Christian community, but it was the priest who celebrated by himself, in his Latin, turning his back on the people present. The priest became a synecdoch, a part for the whole: where were the people? Behind him, reciting the rosary, following its practices. We are witnessing a historic change in liturgy: it became apparent that in the past the Christian community had been dispossessed of its subjectivity, due both to a linguistic factor, Latin, and to a celebrative one, the priest turning his back made him the only celebrant. So one sometimes read on the notepaper for Mass: “The celebrant enters and you stand up”. But why? who is the celebrant? Is it not the whole Christian community? Even verbs like: “I watched Mass” as if it were a show…. We have put up with a series of inconsistencies for centuries until we finally became aware that certain aspects of this tradition were missing and it needed to be radically reformed.
What are the final words of Mass? “This is my body which is given for you” We have made these phrases into a ritual, making them become something else compared to what they meant during the life of Jesus, who healed, who gave hope to all, who gave a sense to real life. We have enclosed this in words, in a context which is no longer in communication with daily life. So, strangely, when I speak of the Eucharist it does not come to my mind to think of a banquet and when I am at the dining table, I don’t think of the Eucharist. When for Jesus Christ it is the banquet of the Eucharist, and I’d like to draw attention to this, because the feast is at the peak of the multiplication and the division of the loaves of bread. Jesus multiplied the loaves and divided them so that they were enough for everybody. If we don’t share bread and wine it won’t be enough for everybody. The real attack on the Eucharist ,told in the Letter to the Corinthians, is that some people eat and others remain in the background. “Why are you doing this? asks Paul- some eat and others remain hungry: it has no sense, first eat and then celebrate the joy of the banquet, that means sharing life.
What are we waiting for to bring out the motivating potential that Eucharist communion can give? We have ritualised the celebration too much, we have closed it within boundaries and estranged it from life, in this way impoverishing life, and also the Lord’s Supper. There is the risk of escaping towards an abstraction of the celebrating ritual and towards an alienation of young people. They follow a gesture of sharing but they risk not being present for each other. Instead the real presence of people being together is at the centre of the celebration. Communication is communion of life.
V.V. Radiating light, modelling, could they be categories inscribed not only in the aesthetic order but also in the ethical one?
C.S. When you come back to Palermo and revisit the Cathedral of Monreale, I’ll take you to see a constructive combination that is uplifting for life. Do you know where the baptism fountain used to be? Exactly as you enter the church, looking at the “Pantocràtore”, to the angel on the right where the parapet is, under the mosaics of the creation on the higher level, while on the lower level there is Noah building the Ark. The Baptism fountain used to be underneath. Then it was taken away, it was taken apart, unfortunately it has been put elsewhere, because it had not been understood that it was a visual message that came from the first day of Creation: “Let there be light”. Do you know how light is represented? It comes from all the angels who are shining brightly, and then there is an intertwining of mosaic forms representing the four cosmic elements, water, air, earth and fire. They have four different colours and they mix together1. Further below on the level of the nave there used to be the baptism fountain which the Greek fathers have always called the place of illumination: Baptism as light, fotismòs, illumination.
What does this illumination mean? It means that man, on the background of gold, which is the call to deification, must be similar to God: “In the image and likeness of God”, through the example of Jesus Christ, who is the best interpreter of this image and likeness. So it is a dynamism of beauty, which is celebrated in the fotismòs. There is a very beautiful phrase: “Looking at your good and beautiful works you glorify your Father in Heaven” What are these good and beautiful works? They are the mosaics, otherwise why all this waste of beauty? Because beauty is a waste, it requires a state of grace for itself. Grace is not an obligation, it is free, an extra, it goes beyond, and it must show radiance. Therefore it is the conception of a person who is accomplished, who is a work of art in the hands of God. God enters in the creation with a project in his hands, he has a plan, in his hands he is holding some folded papers. In Monreale, man in the Creation is the greatest work he can achieve. So much so that God is glad to be mirrored in him, in the man created in his image and likeness. And man is called to translate his realization in gestures of beauty, gestures, actions, movement, things to achieve. The wonderful thing, in a detail of the cathedral is that God, when he creates man, sits in front of him, a little higher up. But he is without shoes, he has taken off his sandals as if to say: “I’m creating an important work”.
This state of being in the image is not a finished work, man by his own nature is unfinished. All the unfinished works by great artists are the demonstration of what man should be. We are by image. Which means we are always travelling towards realisation, a realisation which is not our duty to bring to a conclusion, but which we must strive towards doing so. Therefore all this territory between what we are and what we could become is the pathway that follows the road to beauty, truth and justice. These are God’s words. God is supremely righteous, supremely honest, supremely beautiful. The things we do in life must be true, authentic, righteous, proportioned for all, for the good of all, supremely beautiful, capable of attracting, because attraction is part of beauty. We are attracted by beauty. While we are able to imitate righteousness, contemplate truth, beautiful things attract us. This dynamism,- in this case of the mosaics, but we can say this of every work of art- is what man is called to be: God’s work of art, letting ourselves be shaped by life and giving ourselves shape, the least inadequate possible, in order to be like God, knowing we are not God.
Palermo – Rome, November 20, 2020
Don Cosimo Scordato is Professor at the Faculty of Theology in Palermo (Sicily) and also one of the founders of the self-governed Social Centre “S. Francesco Saverio” in Albergheria (a neighbourhood of Palermo). He is the author of several books among which are the recent four volumes of the Theology of the sacraments: The sacramental septenary, Jacob’s well, a book of sermons: Freedom of speech, a pastoral volume: Lord free us from the Mafia, Monreale. Architecture of light and icons.Palermo, Abadir 2009.