Wednesday 11 November 2020

The Divine Dictionary - A is for Attic

 In 1906, the American writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce published The Devil's Dictionary, giving parallel, but strikingly accurate (and cynical) definitions of common words.  For example: 'Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.'  Or: 'Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbour.'  Inspired by this example, I am launching a new series on this blog entitled The Divine Dictionary which will supply the world with the much-needed guide to how the Focolare Movement has redefined many common words.  As far as I am aware, most of these words are part of the unwritten 'internal' culture of Focolare, so for those who wish to know the nature of the Movement from within may find this new Divine Dictionary useful.  There are numerous examples, so please send me suggestions or queries.  We are starting with...

A is for Attic

'Attic' is one of the first words to be redefined for you when you encounter the Focolare Movement, because it comes at the very start of 'The Story of the Ideal', the simple, enchanting and rigidly fossilised account of how the movement began.

The definition is clear:  the attic is where you put your books.  All of them.

As I explained in The Pope's Armada, 'An extreme integrism underlies Focolare's anti-intellectualism - indeed, its opposition to thought of any kind in its members.  This atiitutude dates from the very beginnings of the movement.

'Chiara Lubcih described how God told her to give up her philosophy studies: "It was when, in order that He could become our Teacher and instruct us in the truth, God asked to sacrifice all the truth that men could give us. It was when, so as to reveal Himself to us, God gave us the strength to put all the books of other teachers in the attic."

'The symbolic act of "putting one's books in the attic" came to signify, in the lore of the movement, the rejection of human learning.  It remains one of its most powerful slogans.  Chiara Lubich emphasises that this radical rejection of outside knowledge is a fundamental step to be taken by all recruits:  "This act of our life is the basis of all the doctrine of the 'Ideal'. It has to be the basis for anyone who wishes to follow Jesus in His Work [the movement]." 

'...Chiara states categorically that "One thing was certain: He who lived among us was God and therefore he was able to reply to all the questions that all men of all time might pose." And the condition for this 'illumination' is also made quite clear: "... the complete void of our minds".'  

I should hastily add, that this means everyone else's minds - the only exception being hers.  In practice, putting one's books in the attic means that she becomes the sole teacher and authority for all the members of the movement.

Clearly she disagreed with that other noted thinker, Socrates, who said, 'Employ your time in improving yourself by other men's writings so that you shall come easily by what others have laboured hard for.'  She thought differently from Socrates on another subject.  He believed that 'The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.'  Whereas she apparently believed she knew everything and revealed her teachings, ironically, in numerous books.   She certainly disagreed with Socrates' dictum, 'I cannot teach anybody anything.  I can only make them think.'

 'Put your books in the attic' is Focolare's low key equivalent of Nazi book burnings. It is therefore not surprising that this phrase is like a red rag to a bull to those outside the movment.  In the process of publishing The Pope's Armada, the book was closely read by Bantam Press'  top firm of solicitors in the City of London.  They had drawn up a list of possibly contentious items - on all of which I was able to satisfy them  By a strange coincidence, the lawyer handling the matter was a practising Anglican and had attended one of Focolare's Easter Anglican trips to Rome, including a visit to Loppiano.  In reading The Pope's Armada, what really outraged him and alerted him to Focolare's true intentions was the phrase 'Put your books in the attic'.

A French couple who had suffered great distress as a result of their daughter 'Marie' becoiming a Focolarina, when she paid one of her 2-day annual visits to their home, mentioned to her the fact that they had read the French edition of my book (Golias, 1999).  A few days later they received a letter from her, giving the approved Focolare view on the book.  'Marie' concluded the letter, rather unwisely: 'Leave this book in the attic'.  As I recounted in the revised version of The Pope's Armada,  'Not surprisingly, aware that this was a Focolare catch-phrase, Marie's mother felt this was the last straw and denounced "your anti-intellectual doctrine which rejects human teaching...It is certainly not thanks to Chiara Lubich that researchers struggle to relieve the scourges of mankind such as cancer, AIDS etc...Any psychologist could tell you that you are in a fool's paradise. " '

In the years I spent as a member of the Movement, I recall specific examples when 'books' were dismissed out of hand.  While I was doing a degree in English and Italian Literature, I mentioned to Jean-Marie Wallet, the head of the London Focolare, that, since meeting the movement, I was having increasing difficulty reading the books on my syllabus.  'Yes,' he nodded sagely: 'once you have read the writings of Chiara Lubich, the great works of world literature fade into insignificance.'  On another occasion I rememebr Fede, the head of the men's branch of the movement, commenting that, 'Shakespeare was a great expert on the "old man".'  This term was appropriated by the movement from St Paul, to signify everything that is evil in human nature and in each individual - qualities also known in the Movement as the 'human'.  Clearly Fede had not read Portia's soaring speech on mercy in The Merchant of Venice or, from the same play, Shylock's speech on racial discrimination, at least four centuries ahead of its time.

When history recalls the enemies of books like Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Cardinal Ratzinger (who ordered the pulping of Lavinia Byrne's Women at the Altar, on the subject of women priests, in  the late 1990's  ), and Bishop  Diego de Landa who burnt the Mayan codices  - there's no need to leave out the distaff side.  They had their bonfires, Chiara Lubich had her attic.