Basing his reflections on the reading from the Book of Sirach (17:1-3; 9-11), Pope John Paul II delivered the following address at the general audience in St Peter's on Wednesday, 9 November.
1. The passage from Sirach which we have just heard, dear brothers and sisters, calls upon us to reflect on the mystery of man: this being who was "created from the earth", to which he is "destined to return again", and yet "made in the image of God" (cf. Sir 17:1 and 3); this ephemeral creature, to whom "limited days of life" have been assigned (ibid., v. 2), and who nonetheless has eyes capable of "beholding God's majestic glory" (v. 11).
In this primary mystery of man is rooted the existential tension which lies at the heart of his every experience. The desire for eternity, present in him through the divine reflection that shines on his countenance, clashes with his radical inability to satisfy it, and this undermines his every effort. One of the great Christian thinkers of the beginning of this century, Maurice Blondel, who dedicated a great part of his life to reflecting on this mysterious aspiration of man's for eternity, wrote: "We are compelled to want to become what by ourselves we can neither achieve nor possess... It is because I have the ambition to be infinite that I feel my impotence: I have not made myself, I am incapable of what I want, I am compelled to go beyond myself" (M. Blondel, L'Action, Paris, 1982, p. 354).
When in concrete existence man perceives this radical inability that characterizes him, he discovers that he is alone, with a profound and insatiable loneliness. It is an original loneliness that comes to him from the acute, and sometimes dramatic, awareness that no one, neither he nor anyone like him, can definitively answer his need and satisfy his desire.
Loneliness begets society
2. Paradoxically, however, this primary loneliness, which the person knows he can count on nothing purely human to overcome, gives rise to the most profound and genuine community among men. It is this very experience of loneliness that he suffers that is the origin of a true sociality, ready to give up the violence of ideology and the abuse of power. We are dealing here with a paradox: in fact, if it were not for this profound "compassion" for the other, which one discovers only if he understands in himself this total loneliness, whoever would urge man, aware of this state of his, to venture society? By the same token, how could society not be the place of domination by the strongest, by the "man who is a wolf to man", as the modern conception of the State not only has theorized but also tragically has practised?
Thanks to a glance at himself that is so laden with truth, man can feel joined with all other men, seeing in them similar subjects frustrated by the same inability and the same desire for complete fulfillment.
The experience of loneliness thus becomes the decisive step on the road toward the discovery of the answer to the radical question. In fact, it creates a profound bond with other men who share the same destiny and are inspired by the same hope. Thus from this abysmal loneliness is born man's serious commitment to his own humanity, a commitment that becomes passion for the other and solidarity with each and every one. An authentic society is then possible for man, because it is not based on selfish calculation but on the attachment to what is most true in himself and in all others.
Building up a society
3. Solidarity with the other becomes more properly an encounter with the other through the various existential expressions that characterize human relationships. Of these, the affectionate relationship between man and woman seems to be the principal one, because it is based on a value judgment in which man invests in a most original way all his vital dynamisms: his intellect, his will, his sensitivity. He then has the experience of that radical intimacy, but not deprived of pain, which the Creator placed in his very nature in the beginning: "The Lord God built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man. When he brought her to the man, the man said, 'This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh'" (Gen 2:22, 23).
Guided by this primary experience of communion, man applies himself with others to the building of a "society" understood as an ordered life in common. The acquired sense of solidarity with all mankind is made concrete above all in a fabric of relationships in which man primarily is called to live and to express himself, bringing his own contribution to them, and receiving from them in return a considerable influence on the development of his own personality. It is in the various environments in which his growth takes place that man is educated to perceive the value of belonging to a people as the indispensable condition for living the dimensions of the world.
4. The pairs of terms, man-woman, person-society, and more basically, soul-body, are man's constitutive dimensions. The whole "pre-Christian" anthropology can be easily seen as reduced to these three dimensions, in the sense that they represent all that man can say of himself aside from Christ.
But they are marked by their polarity. That is, they imply an inevitable dialectic tension. Soul-body, male-female, individual-society are three pairs of terms that express the destiny and the life of an incomplete being. They are once again a cry that rises from the depths of man's most intimate experience. They are a demand for unity and interior peace, they are a desire for an answer to the drama implied by their very being coupled together.
We can say that they are an invoking of an Other who will satisfy the thirst for unity, truth and beauty that emerges from their confronting each other.
Even within this encounter with the other—we can therefore conclude—there arises the urgent need for an intervention by an Other who will save man from a dramatic and otherwise inevitable failure.
Before the singing of the Our Father at the end of the general audience, the Holy Father called for prayers for peace and reconciliation in Lebanon with the following words:
We wish to dedicate today's Our Father particularly to invoke peace and reconciliation in the tormented land of Lebanon.
L'Osservatore Romano November 14, 1983