Friday, July 12, 2013

Metaphors for Work used by Don Orione (Part One)

In some of his writings, Don Orione used different images to describe his concept of work.
Sometimes he explained these images, but not always. But images are more meaningful than academic definitions, because an image opens up an idea, while a definition makes a closure.
In this article, I will try to analyze some of the metaphors used by Don Orione such as ants, a donkey, a straccio (rag), porters and labor, as well as some examples he mentioned of the Orionine sense of work, and of religious who embodied the Founder’s ideals by bearing witness.

            The Founder usually used this image of ants with reference to the Sisters and their way of working; for example, in the famous “begging letter for vocations”, he wrote: 

           “But that is not all, as I also have the Sisters. Divine Providence is at play, placing and developing in my hands in recent years a new Congregation of Sisters, called the Missionaries of Charity (…) I do not know how many of them there are, but I do know that in general they may very well be compared to ants; they give of themselves so totally, growing and multiplying like ants. However, there are never enough of them to meet our needs because there is such a constant demand for them”. [1]
            In a letter addressed to a Sister Superior, he even said that the Sisters are more diligent than male religious: “I have always said that you are like ants and get things done more quickly than we do.” [2]
            While he told his religious that it is necessary to work for vocations, we are not to become discouraged: “If we fail in our attempt, we will start all over again a second, third, fourth, tenth or hundredth time: never let us get discouraged, always returning to the attack, like ants.”[3]
To understand his thoughts, let us reflect on the cultural image of the ant: “In many cultures, including the Jewish, the ant is a symbol of diligence, constancy, efficiency, intelligence and planning for the future, as well as representing the very antithesis of lazy.”[4]

 We also find this idea in the well-known fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, attributed to Aesop, which compares their conduct: the ant works while the grasshopper is idle. As the Book of Proverbs says: “Go to the ant, O sluggard, study her ways and learn wisdom; for though she has no chief, no commander or ruler, she procures her food in the summer, stores up her provisions in the harvest.” (6:6-8)[5]

            Knowing the cultural background of the ant, it is easy to see that Don Orione wanted his Sisters to be diligent and very hard workers, to have a sense of community and to maintain a spirit of their own nothingness.

The Little Donkey of Divine Providence
The Founder applied the image of the donkey, a pack animal, to himself as well as to his children.
During his first meeting with Don Orione, young Ignazio Silone,[6] the famous Italian writer, heard from the Founder’s own mouth: My vocation in life – and now I'm letting you into a great secret! – is to learn how to live like one of God's little donkeys, a real little donkey of Divine Providence!”[7]
            In several letters about the very beginning of the mission in Sáenz Peña, Don Orione used the following expression: “If there were no horses, donkeys would take their place”, to say that he had agreed to go to Sáenz Peña, because others had refused to. In a letter to Abbot Caronti, then Apostolic Visitor of the Congregation, he wrote: 

             “I think the others did not agree to go because of the unbearable heat and the great poverty there; but we want to be poor and to exist for the poor. I thought that, if Your Lordship had been here, you would have given me your blessing, and I thought of all those souls and of Jesus Christ. I remembered that my mother used to tell me that if there were no horses, donkeys would take their place. Well, we are the donkeys of Providence, or at least that is our desire.”[8]
            In another letter about Sáenz Peña, he pursued the same idea, but added: Oh, yes! Our desire is to be the little donkeys of Divine Providence. Jesus preferred donkeys, didn’t he? – After all, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, didn’t he? Yes, yes, how blessed we will be if we can be the donkeys of Jesus, the Pope, bishops and souls! [9] His idea is rooted in the biblical tradition of the meek and humble Messiah, who enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey: “Say to daughter Zion, 'Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden. (Mt 21:5).

Being a “donkey of Divine Providence” was not a mere figure of speech for Don Orione, it was the deep conviction by which he lived. His children and he himself were to be small, humble and poor for the poor, because this was the desire of Jesus.

[1] Circular letter to Italian parish priests. Tortona, 15th August 1927.
[2] Letter to a Sister Superior. Tortona, 10th March 1931. Scritti 39,88 and 39,109
[3] A conversation to his religious. Campocroce, 29th July 1924. Scritti 99,113
[4] YEFFET-REFAEL, R. “Proverbios, fábulas y metáforas de la hormiga en la literatura hebrea de la Edad Media”. [Online] Culturas Populares. Revista Electrónica 5 (julio-diciembre 2007), 17 pp. [consult: 13th October 2011].
[5] The New American Bible, Thomas Nelson (Publisher), Nashiville, 1971.
[6] Ignazio Silone, (Pescina, 1st May 1900 – Geneva, Switzerland, 22nd August 1978), was the pseudonym of Secondino Tranquilli, an Italian writer.
[7] Italian text from the Emergency Exit by Ignazio Silone, the chapter entitled Encounter with a strange priest. Cf. CLISSOLD, S., Some Call it Providence. Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., London, 1980, p. 107.
[8] Letter to Abbot Emanuel Caronti. Buenos Aires, 17th March 1937. Cf. PAPASOGLI, G., A Life of Don Orione, Sons of Divine Providence, London, 2000, pp. 416 – 417.
[9] Letter to Contess Dolores Cobo de Marchi di Cellere. Rio de Janeiro, 10th April 1937. Scritti 51, 147 and 51, 248

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