– Aurelio Porfiri
In previous chapters, we mentioned about well-known figures in the Catholic world like Saint Athanasius, Saint Augustine, Saint Alphonsus, C.S. Lewis… All these people are certainly quite familiar to the practicing Catholic, in one way or the other. Here I want to mention another giant of Catholic spirituality who is well known only in Italy, but not outside. This is a pity, due to the caliber of the person we are speaking of: Divo Barsotti (1914-2006).
He was a priest, a prolific author and a master of spirituality. Hopefully, some of his masterworks will be available soon in English and in Chinese, but the process of translation of his works will be very long because we are talking of thousands and thousands of pages, hundreds of books, spiritual exercises, letters and so on and so forth. But despite this, Divo Barsotti deserves to be well known. And here we will speak about one of his works, in particular, called Introduzione ai Salmi (Introduction to the Psalms), published in 2010 by Edizioni San Paolo. We can find some of the themes that we have already discussed with regards to other authors, but we can also find some peculiar topics. The book is roughly divided into two big sections: in the first one Barsotti introduces us to the “world of the Psalms”; in the second he suggests a pathway throughout the Psalms themselves. Here, for our purpose, we will just refer to the first section.
Divo Barsotti, right at the beginning, tells us that there is a reason why the Church wants us to be familiar with the Psalter: “Now the Church knows well, better than any of us, that our life at the end is not supported by teaching or doctrine – in this case, the Church should suggest to us Saint Paul or the Gospel (for the daily prayer…) our life is essentially prayer. Our deepest life is not to listen to a teaching, it is not obedience to the law: it is most of all to live a drama, a ‘relationship’, a relationship that God has with us, but also the relationship that we have with him. The true word of man is a word directed to someone.”
Here at the beginning, Barsotti immediately sets the tone; teachings and doctrine are very important, but at the deepest level, our life has to be essentially prayer. Divo Barsotti suggests this idea also in another book about Saint Francis of Assisi, saying that he does not have to discuss how he prays because he was prayer itself, a living prayer.
Because in the end, our life is a relationship, God has given us the Psalms, prayers that represent a huge range of spiritual and human feelings and emotions. We can speak to Him with these words but most of all, He can speak to us. “God has revealed himself in the word of our weakness, in the word of our poverty, in the word of our humility.”
What is suggested by Barsotti is beautiful that God before becoming flesh in the incarnation, wanted to become the word on our lips, “for this reason he was not a man only on the cross, but the cry of pain on your lips, the joy in your heart that erupts in song.” The dramatic representation of the Psalms touches man’s life in all possible moments, it is like God wants a relationship with us as we really are, in the depths of our being. And, in the end, this is a love relationship that we use as a communication tool, prayer that is supposed to be sung.
Music, sacred music, is the highest form of communication we can use with our God. This happens because singing gives new meaning to the words, preserves them from daily consumption. This is the reason sacred music has to be peculiar to Catholic worship, not being an imitation of commercial models.
Then, returning to Barsotti’s book, there is a very interesting insight that refers to the language. He says that there are three families of languages, the eastern one that communicates in images (pittorica); the Semitic, Arabic, and Hebraic, that express that power of will; and the western one, that is the language of thought. “To use Italian, French, English, German, Russian languages, means essentially to think. But “to speak” for a Chinese is not strictly related to thinking, it is related to seeing: he is good at associating relationship with the images. Also, ideographic writing is similar to painting. Indeed, the most beautiful painting for a Chinese is his own calligraphy. Every word is really an image. Not the logical chain of the idea shapes the discourse, but the relationship of images, as in painting; this may explain some difficulties to understand our theology in those lands, to a Japanese or a Chinese. Because that is a purely conceptual language. He needs to see.”
It has to be said that Divo Barsotti loved eastern culture, he was especially fond of Japan and had the occasion of visiting and preaching in Hong Kong and Macau. So what Barsotti says is out of love for these cultures and deep respect. What he wanted to express is that our education is determined by the language we use.
So, in the case of the Psalms, we need to understand a language that is not our own, that is not logical in the sense that he explained before and is also different from the eastern one: “Semitic language expresses the pure power of the act, it is at the origin and immediate as life. Western poetry does not express the feelings of men in the immediate act. It needs to remember them, has to decant its feelings; reasons intervene and mediate the feelings of the poet. This poetry has a certain purity, interior calm, a certain way to see things from a distance; feelings are purified but they have less strength. It is different from the poetry of the Psalms: they are erupting words that are breaking up, it is an elementary language; also the word is action. This is the language of mystics. And so, the highest religious experience is given to Semitic language.” I am quite sure that here many will have disagreements and different opinions, and that is fair, but I think that the assessment of Barsotti is really worthy of consideration and careful reading.
There are so many things in the book of Divo Barsotti that are worthy to be mentioned here that I would need an entire book to comment on his commentary. It is really a book rich in spiritual insights, but I need to mention one thing to end this chapter. Barsotti at a certain point has said, “If the Psalter is the word of man, really there is no book that better describes the misery, but also the drama, the tragedy of human life.” Wow, I think this is really strong…and true. The Psalms do not give us a consoling receipt for our prayers, but they go deep in what life is, a drama where there are the forces of good and evil that battle each other. We often want to see religion only as a consolatory element in our life, and certainly, there is also consolation. But the Psalms tell us that religion can console us only when we accept life for what it is. They offer a dramatic representation of the battle I mentioned above, they talk to us of the struggle, the joy, the tragedy, the praise, and all range of emotions and feelings that we go through in our earthly existence. This is why Barsotti gives us a very important quote: “the rule of prayer is the Psalms: every prayer is only repeating them.” And this is why the Church wisely uses the Psalms so extensively in Her liturgy, and this from the very beginning. Because they are the real standard to measure the effectiveness of prayer. They are words of God and the words of men. It is hugely wrong when people are encouraged to use texts in the liturgy because they feel are “more personal.” There is nothing more personal than the Psalms because they are inspired by God himself, that God that it is my deepest life.
I hope that soon the books of Barsotti may be available to a wider audience in many languages, because his spiritual insights and his spiritual life, are of great importance not only to his immediate disciples but to the entire Christendom.