An Ethic of Christmas
Greg shares his experience of publishing the new English translation of The Meaning of Birth
Over the past months we’ve been reading Fr. Carron’s lessons from the Fraternity Exercises and Beginning Day. In both of those events he has referred to a book called The Meaning of Birth. Seeing these quotations from this volume—a book-length dialogue between Father Giussani and the Milanese novelist, playwright, art historian, and essayist, Giovanni Testori—I was deeply moved, for reasons that will quickly become clear.
As it happened, Fr. José Medina, the leader of Communion and Liberation in the U.S., had approached me early in 2021 with a proposal. Fr. José knew that I had started a small publishing venture, a press that brought out a variety of books in the realms of literature, philosophy, and theology. The name of the press is Slant Books, from the poem by Emily Dickinson that begins: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant— / Success in Circuit lies / Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth's superb surprise.”
Dickinson’s poem is about our need to approach mystery with humility—such is our disproportion before the immensity of truth that we often need to employ our imaginations—precisely where reason becomes aware of its own limitations.
Slant had recently published The Relevance of the Stars, by the late Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, Fr. José’s predecessor as leader of the movement in the U.S. Soon after that book was published, Fr. José approached me about The Meaning of Birth.
But how did this book come about in the first place? The story is a fascinating one and it brings together so many strands of history and experience. In the late 1970s, Giovanni Testori—a leading Italian writer and also an openly gay man—had become an editorial writer for the newspaper Corriere della Sera. After a particularly powerful editorial by Testori on the recent assassination of politician Aldo Moro, Fr. Giussani asked a few members of the movement to visit Testori and try to learn from him. This visit became an event in Testori’s life. Though raised as a Catholic, he had fallen away from the faith, but the recent death of his mother had helped to bring him back.
Testori would form a strong friendship with Fr. Giussani and they embarked on a joint project to edit and publish a line of books through the major Italian publishing company, Rizzoli. When they met in a beautiful country house to discuss the vision behind this series, their conversation was recorded and became The Meaning of Birth. The name they settled on for the series was Books of Hope.
The conversation begins with Testori noting that he had considered calling the series either Books of the Cross or Books of the Crib, with the third choice being Books of Hope. Speaking of the Christ child in the manger, the two men begin delving into what it means to be born—to be given life, something that we cannot give to ourselves. From there the conversation ranges widely, including the causes of modern despair and nihilism to the dangers of abstract ideologies to the path that leads us back to recognizing the great grace we have been given in being born.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes in his foreword to this new English edition of The Meaning of Birth that the conversation recorded there ultimately becomes “an ethic of Christmas: the mystery of God’s own self coming to birth among us so that we may at last see and love the dependence we fear or deny and acknowledge in one another the mystery we must look upon with wonder and thanksgiving.”
Later in the conversation, Fr. Giussani says: “I am unable to find a sign of hope other than the multiplying of people who are presences,” the quote to which Fr. Carron alluded. In the course of working on editing the book this phrase also struck me: those who live the memory of their birth, who recognize that their life is a gift of Someone who is present...become “presences” themselves.
For me this is true not only of my in-the-flesh encounters, but also my experience with great books. A well-written book contains a powerful sense of a human presence, even if that book is about fictional characters! Given this, it will probably come as no surprise that my own first encounter with Fr. Giussani was in 1988, when I was asked to review his book, Morality: Memory and Desire.
I remember not understanding much of what Fr. Giussani was saying—the rhetorical style was not what my “Anglo” brain was used to processing. It was less like a straight line and more like—well, a “slanted” approach to the Mystery. For many years I admired the movement from afar because it was never present where I lived. Then, one day, Monsignor Albacete made the crazy suggestion to me that I “be” the movement in Seattle. That scared me a great deal but through some act of divine mercy I said “yes” that day and we have now been a “presence” in Seattle for seventeen years.
Perhaps the most stunning thing that has happened so far because of The Meaning of Birth is the phone call I recently received from my friend Simonetta from New York. She texted me to ask if she could give me a call and when she did, I could hear tears in her voice. “I was one of those young people Fr. Giussani sent to see Giovanni Testori,” she told me. “I don’t know why I was chosen but Testori welcomed us warmly. There were so many books there was no place to sit.”
So I learned that Simonetta was one of those “presences” that so struck Testori, that made him want to meet Fr. Giussani and launch Books of Hope and talk about the meaning of birth.
In this Advent season, all these strands come together, making me thankful, full of hope for the presence that will soon be coming, a new birth to make me realize what my own birth means.
Learn more about The Meaning of Birth here.
Greg, Seattle, WA