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Marcello Tari: A letter to friends from the desert

This civilisation will not come to an end because of the coronavirus. I believe that it is clear to everyone that the latter is only an epiphenomenon, but one born of the former’s arrogance, its insatiable rapacity, its injustice, because it transformed the world into a gigantic morbid factory. What else could be born, apart from the demon of total destruction, of a civilization which elevated money to the rank of absolute idol and power as the ultimate end of everything and all existence?

Originally published by Lundi Matin. Translated by Autonomies.

Dear friends,

There are few things more comforting in life than writing letters to one’s dearest friends at a time like this. I hope that this one will find you healthy and beautiful, as I guard you in me.

Some of us are living in great suffering these days, but friendship – being as close as possible to everyone who is close – is so made that we can share it and leaving it aside, lessen it if we wish. Simply because, by virtue of friendship, we are effortlessly led to live with the life itself of others. Within the cloister that has enclosed us, we must remain open as never before to the wind of friendship which is capable, as we know, of blowing beyond any distance.

As you no doubt may have had the occasion to notice, for a few days or weeks, we have been, depending on our respective countries, all reduced to quarantine in a period which, by a sort of disturbing chance, also coincides with that of Lent; a period traditionally devoted to introspection, renunciation, but also, perhaps, reconciliation. And since I always thought that there was nothing like “chance”, as everyone who knows me knows well, and that this was only a way of speaking to reassure oneself, a superstition by which we force ourselves to believe that what happens, the way it happens, has no meaning for us; I thought that this coincidence was one of the signs of the times that we are called upon to interpret.

In the Gospels, it is said that during this period Jesus was “pushed” by the Spirit into the desert for forty days and that there, in this period of asceticism, he suffered the temptations of the devil.

It is a topos that can be found in several stories of the Old Testament, starting of course with the adventurous crossing of the Jewish people to flee persecution. Different stories, but all signs that the desert is “trial”. Of course, in each of our lives, we have sometimes gone through desert-like periods. And this did not always go well and we bare the scars, or at least that’s my experience. But the times when we came out stronger are those that, to think of it now, allow us to still be alive. The exceptional thing is that sometimes, like today, the ordeal is at the same time individual and collective, to the point of involving entire peoples, if not all of humanity.

We, who have always scrutinised the inexorable flow of history by looking for signs of the event that would interrupt it, we cannot remain unmoved before what is going on. It is an extraordinary event, which makes us realise that we do not have enough words to describe it. The desert is also the absence of words, discourses, repetitive and pleasant sounds. Moreover, in Hebrew, the term used for “word”, dabar, and that for “desert” or “wilderness”, midbar, have the same root: from this, it can be supposed that it is precisely because the desert is a place deprived of words that it is most propitious for the revelation of the Word as an event. The first thing to do, therefore, is to listen for, to clean up one’s own “home”, one’s own self, enough to be able to welcome the event. But to listen for what exactly? In an interview with a nun that I read recently, she said that obedience should be understood in its etymological sense, as ob-audire, that is, “to listen in front of, before”. “To listen to reality” is the real meaning of obedience, she concluded in her cloister. I believe that it is an exercise of this kind that the period calls for.

In the desert there are no streets, no paths already traced and that it would be enough to follow: it is the task of the one who crosses it, to orient her/himself and to clear a path that brings her/him beyond it, outside. There are no shops either, nor water sources, no plants and everything seems motionless because in the desert there is no production, there are no bars, no social centers, nothing like that, nothing of what we would consider as conditions for making a place “livable” is present. It can be ultimately said that there is nothing human to it and that is why in the book of Deuteronomy, it is said that in the desert there is a howling loneliness. I know, I know that a large part of this period that we are living seems essentially made up of this howling and this dehumanisation, and I understand the distrust and the horror that grabs at us sometimes and leads us to despair. The vulgarity of much of the “music” coming from balconies in Italy these days, in the early evening, fails to cover this howl: it is rather it which covers over everything. In reality, after the euphoria of the first days, it is a rite that is already disappearing: many understand that it is something that does not sound right. To change this howl into a song depends on our sensitivity, on our understanding of and entente with the event. No, we must not roll about in despair nor fix ourselves in denial. There are many ways to despair and deny, and often they seem to be opposites, in the turmoil they are made of and which they transmit: let us not be fooled. Let’s listen to the song of reality, truly.

Still in these old books, one must remember that it is said that the Garden of Eden was the first victory over the desert chaos, that it was actually planted in the center of where there was nothing, neither bushes nor grass, neither river nor anything else. And this garden has indeed remained unforgettable, as a promise of happiness to which to strive: a place of abundance where there is neither work nor exploitation, where everything is in equilibrium with everything. In their best moments, people thought that it was the only existence worthy of being lived. Victory in and over the desert then means nothing but access to the possibility of a truer, richer, happier and freer life. Each of us at this minute is going through our own ordeal and it is not easy to distinguish what is supported by the body from that which is supported by the mind, as we usually tend to do. No doubt this is the occasion, at this minute and not in some other tomorrow or God knows when, to bring together what we usually tend to consider divided. You know it better than I do: our civilization was from its roots to its summit the civilization of division; let us not allow it today to deepen the division again and again.

The desert is the proper place of krisis, in the original sense of this ancient Greek word that continues to obsess us: choice and decision. Do you not therefore think, my friends, that today we are all “pushed” exactly to this place? Perhaps the inevitable moment of decision has come for all of us?

And do you not think that this is a decision that we should take together, starting from ourselves and not each for her/himself without taking into account others?

The desert of which I speak is the place of trial, not because it is an empty space, but because it is deprived of all the things which artificially decorate existences, all that facilitates and flatters them: it is therefore deprived of the distractions that prevent everyone daily from contemplating her/his own life with clairvoyance. The desert is consequently the place that allows you to meditate, concretely, on your own life in the world, from a place outside the world, in the most genuine sense: free of the superfluous, of everything that we thought necessary but which, on the contrary, we now suddenly and definitively know that it is no longer so because it never has been. Conversely, the desert makes us feel the desire for everything that is really missing in our life. Along the path that we painfully open in it, we then experience the absence of community, of justice, of what can be freely given, of true health and, of course, we will also experience the absence of that person that we have excluded from our intimacy without fully understanding why, or of the person who has excluded us from her/his intimacy and that we nevertheless, mysteriously, continue to love. Thirsty for love? It must be said that yes, in every possible way. One of you, a long time ago, told me that doing anything together does not make any sense unless we also want at least a little of what is good. Not the abstract good of ideology, but precisely that of the body or mind that one experiences through contact. Of course, understanding what that good consists of has not always been easy, and often even instead of what is good, we have hurt ourselves. In fact, the few beings who permanently inhabit the desert are still dangerous: hyenas and demons. Of Jesus however it is said that at the end of the test even the wild beasts remained by his side as if they were lambs (Eden!). We must then seize the moment to succeed once and for all in understanding what it means to love one another using neither subterfuges, nor absurd kinds of mediation, nor the hypocrisy with which each time, we have passed each other by. I have the impression, the certainty, that in the moment when we touch this reality and obey it, then yes, we will “be everything”.

It is in this that the desert is that place in which, through meditations and trials, the strong spirit of a new beginning is lastingly formed. Today we have the possibility of not repeating a ritual as if it were a parenthesis ultimately insignificant for us and for the world – and in terms of worn and useless rituals, let me tell you that we are great experts – but to definitively tear the veil of History which keeps us prisoners of an evil dream. To go beyond, as an old sage often said. At this moment, to go beyond means to go much further than the pandemic, to go together towards another plane of existence.

Hardened by the desert, with the spiritual strength acquired through deprivation and the victorious fight against demons, we will be able to present ourselves again to the world with a new power which is not of the world, that power which knows – as Jesus says to the demon who tempted him for the first time – that we live not only by bread, but with and through the Word. A Word which is more material than matter. The temptations to which Christ is subjected are those of always: possession, power, manipulations. Matter which is less than matter. It is against these that we have always struggled: that is precisely why we became friends, remember?

It is this Word that moves through us these days, each in her/his own corner, each in her/his cloister, each in her/his desert, each bearing a different punishment. These corners, which can be those of a reconquered intimacy but which however, taken together, create a single, immense desert, which is like a gigantic encounter with reality. Since the desert of which I speak is not the empty streets of the metropolis, which is always empty and sad even when it is full and everything passes quickly and makes us sick; but the wild space that exposes us to the Word and within which we fight one by one against temptations. I know almost all of them that I imagine are attacking most of you these days, because they were and still are, in part, mine too. You know what I am referring to. However, a decisive teaching of Jesus in the desert is that one does not have a dialogue with the devil, never, because once you agreed to have it, you remain prisoner of it, as clever as you think yourself to be: his discourse, his rhetoric, his art of seduction, are all bars which close in over you. How many times have we seen these bars keep old friends away from us forever…

Day after day, our dwellings are transformed into fragments of a desert heath, with its wild animals, its deep silence, so incomparably habitable, and its presences, which we usually do not perceive, too overwhelmed as we are by a myriad of largely useless things. The challenge is to recognise the right presence, the good one, that one which cares, and to drive out the bad one, the one that makes you sick, which lies to you to make you lie, which intends you to kneel before it in exchange for more power, more things, more worldliness, more recognition, more, more, more … The desert reveals the distinction between the possible and the impossible.

The desert is also the place reached by the first monachoi, the “solitary” ones, those who moved away from an unjust and decadent empire, first in small numbers, then who, month after month, year after year, become hundreds and thousands and thus began to live together, group by group, in cenobia, a word which does not mean anything other than what we too have always been looking for: a place of common life. Already then, as today, it was an ordeal that affected people as well as the community. And around the cenobia were formed other communities and finally cities, which received their spiritual strength from the cenobia. From these solitary individuals who managed to see, from their retreat into the desert, from this community where everything was in common, was thus born a new civilisation; one that subsequently got lost in the centuries because it lost touch with its truth and has, over time, knelt more and more before the demons of capitalism, which today is itself dying. The problem is that it wants to take us with it to hell.

This civilisation will not come to an end because of the coronavirus. I believe that it is clear to everyone that the latter is only an epiphenomenon, but one born of the former’s arrogance, its insatiable rapacity, its injustice, because it transformed the world into a gigantic morbid factory. What else could be born, apart from the demon of total destruction, of a civilization which elevated money to the rank of absolute idol and power as the ultimate end of everything and all existence?

Once out of the “emergency” and of our desert, because we must always consider that staying in its company is only transitory, we must not allow it to be only a parenthesis, full of suffering and death, or even of discoveries and memorable moments, which would be followed by a return to the normality of before, because it is precisely this which has brought us to the point where we are and which can no longer continue except by deepening the destruction. And I also mean by the normality before, our way of life, or rather of survival and illusion. I see that many among us seek desperately to reaffirm their own normality. It’s wrong, in all friendship: it’s not worth it.

But we must also pay attention to the normality afterwards, which we will be presented as the new necessity, made up of prohibitions, lack of freedom and renewed selfishness, all for our good. Or the one that improvised prophets will point out as the stuff of the new world, identical to the one before it, but with different rulers.

On the contrary, we would have to repeat the gesture of separation of the first monachoi: to secede from the decadent civilisation of destruction, to build our cenobia, our communes. I have been thinking a great deal lately about why we have not done it yet, why we were not able to, what has kept us so far from trying again, and I have not been able to give myself satisfactory answers. One of you will probably be able to suggest one. Perhaps I am beginning to catch a glimpse of one that we have not yet considered. But in any case, this time when the Spirit has “pushed us” deserves, I believe, a real answer. An answer from us. One that could come from the silence we inhabit, from the loneliness we aim for, from the evil against which we are fighting. What will we do, what will we see, when we leave the desert?

Once out of the desert, the Nazarene announces that the Kingdom is now near. I always interpreted this nearness not in the temporal sense of a not too distant future and which besides nobody ever succeeded in calculating, but as something which we have or which is beside us, as is said precisely of those who are our fellows, our neighbours. About this closeness, I think that we do not need a lot of other words to understand and get along.

I kiss you and I hope to hear from you soon,

Yours,

Marcello


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