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Samuel said to Saul, Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up? I am in great distress, Saul said, …God has departed from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. (First Book of Samuel, 28:15)
The Book of Genesis is not a moral treatise, nor is it a manual of family ethics. It is much more than that. The Jacob Cycle (chapters 27-37) is a beautiful fresco of human greatness and contradictions where all the colours of life and all the tones of social and family relationships are at work: starting from the splendid and auroral theophanies and blessings to the dark and nocturne lies and deceits.
Esau, having been deceived and left at the bank of the River of Alliance together with the other “defeated ones“, discovers the second deceit of his brother (the theft of the patriarchal blessing). From then on, ‘Esau held a grudge against Jacob. (…) He said to himself, »The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.«’ (27:41) As soon as their mother Rebekah, who was the mastermind behind the deceit, gets to know Esau’s intention, she says to Jacob: ‘Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. (…) do what I say: flee at once to my brother Laban‘ (27:42-45)
Every brotherhood that is rejected is an opening for the possibility of fratricide. Jacob obeys his mother once again; he sets out on a journey in order not to die, avoiding this way that his brotherhood should take the course of that of Cain – brotherhood in the Bible is never a romantic or sentimental thing. Salvation comes yet another time through “dispersion” (like in Babel, like the one between Abraham and Lot). And he is awaited by a decisive encounter in the desert, in the form of a dream. This is the first time Jacob meets JHWH who issues a personal call to him. From that moment on JHWH will not merely be the God of the fathers (“JHWH, your God” as Jacob said to Isaac in their dialogue of the deceit: 27:20), but also his God, the Voice that calls him by his name. When he reaches the desert, night falls and Jacob falls asleep. He has a dream: ‘he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.’ (28:12) And JHWH speaks to him in his dream, too: ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. …Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth… All peoples on earth will be blessed through you’ (28:13-14). Jacob, the third of the patriarchs, the deceitful substitute enters in a personal encounter with the God of the Alliance of the fathers, and the promise becomes his. Upon awaking from his dream he exclaims: ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it. (…) this is the gate of heaven.’ (28:16-17).
In the Antiquity, dreams were always considered to be mysteries, they were very serious and important things. They are the places of real theophanies in the Bible, too: people did not yet know about the existence of the subconscious and so they were free to dream and had more means to listen to and decipher the many different words of life.
Before this dream, Jacob had not received a calling. He was only the “grandson” of Abraham, the son of the Alliance and the promise, but he was a man of poor behaviour and a low ethical profile, neither better nor different from many men of his people. He was inside a story of Alliance and promise, one that had been re-occurring in the times of evening story-telling under his family’s tent, and one that had been feeding his soul with hope. The inheritance of the Alliance and the promise do not get passed on through blood links; it is not a noble rank, nor is it transferred to you by your family name. Every alliance is connected to a name, it is a vocational thing, a personal encounter with the Voice that calls you and creates a task and a destiny for you.
It is not enough to be the children or family members of the founder of a business in order to collect its moral inheritance. A son may inherit the status, the prestige and the goods of his parents, but the family business dies (or is sold) unless at a certain point, at least for one member of the family, a personal calling arrives to become the persecutor of that first human and moral adventure, in order to continue the dream and the pact that have generated it. That first pact dies if Gianna remains only the daughter of Bruno, the founder, and will not be alive again until a new dream arrives. Vocations do exist, even in our post-modern world that is so disenchanted that it seems not to be able to dream or listen to the deep voices of life any more. We may have different ideas about Who or what the voice calling is, but it is a fact proved by experience that vocations fill the earth, make it live and be reborn every day. We could not explain (or our explanation would be poor or wrong) the existence of artists, scientists, poets, missionaries, but also the presence of many social and civil entrepreneurs without taking the category of vocation into consideration. And we would never know the essential dimensions of life (among them, gratuitousness) if there weren’t people who are “driven from within” and are not pulled along by incentives but follow a voice.
Noemi was an employee for twenty years in a public corporation. One day, on a certain day, she feels that she has to leave that secure job of hers in order to bring an enterprise to life with some partners in the alternative energy sector, and so make her ethical ideals take shape in a professional and social project. One day, on a certain day, Marco reads “by chance” a book of economics and feels like writing to its author: ‘You have written this book for me.’ A few years later Marco changed his life and today he is a civil entrepreneur and follows the principles of communion. Passions, interests, preferences…of course; but in order to understand and tell these stories of yesterday, of all times, the word “vocation” is much stronger and more efficient (we should write a “dictionary of vocations” collected from the different realms of the human). The experience is truer and deeper for those who can hear this inside: ‘You can become something you are not now, and something that is the better part of you‘. Every person has got a vocation, a way leading to their own excellence and to the common good, a “not yet” that is waiting to become “already“. However, not all vocations get to flourish because without meeting the people and places of gratuitousness these voices are not heard, they remain suppressed by the noises of everyday life, the noise that is too big in our civilisation. Every time a person discovers, follows and cherishes a vocation, there happens an encounter between past, present and future, between heaven and earth, and it forever changes the world and makes it better. At times this voice is heard at 12 years old, at others only at 80: one’s age or health condition do not matter much. What matters is only to find the “gate” of heaven one day and to see the “angels” ascending and descending on the “stairway” connecting it to the earth and to our lives.
Lorenza is a writer, and when she composes her stories, she sees her grandmother Anna “descend from heaven” who in the very few years she could attend school had memorised some poems that she used to recite to her on festive occasions. Franco is an entrepreneur, and the day his own company’s headquarters could finally be inaugurated he “ascended to heaven” and thanked his great-grandfather, Giovanni, who passed on to him the beauty and wisdom in creating something by your hands and heart when he was a little child.
Upon waking from the dream-encounter, Jacob took the stone he had slept on – and that, in this way, had “participated” in the dream – ‘set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.‘ (28:18-19) In the stories of vocation, geography has the same weight as the story itself: it isn’t only facts and documents that can speak, places can speak, too. All symbols are a crossing point of a story and geography, of words and places. We could not possibly understand who Mother Teresa and Gandhi were without India, or Etty Hillesum without the Nazi-occupied Holland, don Oreste Benzi without the dark streets of Rimini. Places have names, too (which means they have a calling and a destiny), they participate as heroes in our stories and vocations, because between heaven and earth there exists a mysterious but real law of reciprocity. The man of the Bible knew this very well. We – who have already wasted our symbolic capabilities – know it much less, but we haven’t forgotten it completely. So in times of weariness, we instinctively return to the symbolic places of our life – where on a certain day in a certain place we heard the decisive Voice – in order to be loved by them, to let them chose us again, to re-dream that first dream and hear being called by our name again.
The earth and the heavens continue to live and talk to us. And we, just like Jacob, continue to dream them and to search for “the gate to heaven” and a “stairway” to reach it for all our lives.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 11/05/2014