The Motionless Flight: First English translation of Divo Barsotti’s spiritual diary

Italian theologian Don Divo Barsotti (1914-2006), writes for the heart, not the head alone. He is concerned to present Christianity as new life, not simply a new philosophy or new politic.

Fr. Divo Barsotti celebrating Mass in 1991. (YouTube screen shot)

People look for treasures in different places. Pearl divers go into the depths of the ocean, adventurers go into the Amazon forest, and academics go into the library. That last search is not as dangerous as the others, but is every bit as rewarding. Now, the diver would be shocked if someone delivered a pearl to him in the morning post, the explorer would be startled if the treasure chest arrived by Amazon at his house, and the academic would be amazed to have a treasure box arrive in his inbox. This is what happened to me when a friend in Rome named Aurelio Porfiri first sent me a manuscript he was having translated. As editor of Chorabooks, he is trying to make known to the English-speaking world an Italian theologian named Divo Barsotti (1914-2006), who is a treasure.

What else can I call Barsotti when I learned his reputation as “the last mystic of the 20th century; that he produced 160 books over his lifetime in such varied fields as liturgical theology, spiritual exegesis, fundamental theology, pastoral care, poetry, and mysticism; that at the same time he taught sacramental and spiritual theology at the seminary in Florence for 30 years, he founded a religious society named Comunità dei Figli di Dio (CFD: Community of God’s Sons and Daughters); that he named the Motherhouse Casa San Sergio, in honor of the Russian monk St. Sergius because he was introducing Russian spirituality to his Italian audience; that he preached papal retreats and was friends with Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI; that he was often visited by friends who were the significant theologians of the 20th century (Danielou, Bouyer, de Lubac, Evdokimov, von Speyr, Beauduin, Hausherr, Merton, Ratzinger, Giussani); that von Balthasar served the last six months of his life as Barsotti’s spiritual director, and had his diary translated into German, and wrote a preface for it.

For these reasons, and more, I call Barsotti a treasure. But I must correct an earlier impression. He is not for academics alone. He writes for the heart, not the head alone. He is concerned to present Christianity as new life, not simply a new philosophy or new politic. Barsotti is concerned with Love, and all the struggles and joys that accompany our encounter with the Source of Love. The charism of the community he founded is described this way by his successor, Fr. Tognetti: “The spiritual foundation of this family, especially for the laity, is a Christian life that has as its major energy resource that of the great monastic tradition: the sacraments, the reading of Scripture and prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours. Community members also learn the method of ‘divine presence,’ that is to live all things of the day by invoking the presence of the risen Christ.” Therefore the community intentionally encompasses priests and laity, married couples with children, those who live a community life and as well as those who embrace vows while remaining in the world.

Barsotti has left us with an account of the interior struggle that occurs when the Source of Love comes to take up residence. He kept a spiritual diary during the years 1944-46, and it was published in 1957 in Italian as La Fuga Immobile, as Die Regungslose Flucht in 1960 by von Balthasar in the German translation, and now as The Motionless Flight in 2020 by Chorabooks in the first ever English translation. I hadn’t any linguistic skill to contribute to the translation made by Porfiri and Giuseppe Pellegrino, but did serve as theological consultant. And what did I discover?

Barsotti uses introspection upon his own existence to observe the process of becoming Christian. By this, I do not mean coming to believe Christian teachings, I mean what Barsotti and the Church fathers mean, namely, becoming Christoform. Christianity is Jesus. Christianity is the event of God becoming man, with the ongoing possibility for man to become divine. The seed planted in the human race by the incarnation must ripen and mature and flower and fructify in every individual soul. There is a communion among those walking the pathway to heaven, and we derive direction and strength from some special souls walking beside us. This means that the diary is his story, and yet not his alone. His story is not ours … and yet it is. When Barsotti describes his doubts and confidence, his discouragement and hope, he is offering himself to us in a communion of love.

No two persons are the same, and yet the experience of one Christian soul resonates with another Christian soul, the way one vibrating tuning fork will set another to humming. We choose such saints from the communion who create vibrations in our souls, and I predict that many will find Barsotti’s spiritual honesty to have such an effect on them. Christianity is the unification of two wills, God’s and ours. To accomplish this union we must face our fears drawing upon a stockpile of fortitude given by faith and hope. Barsotti shares his diary in order to literally “en-courage” us: fill us with courage.

The diary is a behind-the-scenes story of patience. He, like us, gave his life over to Christ. We, like him, claim to be ready to make any sacrifice for Christ. And then we are met with silence. He writes, “I have to prepare myself, I must not become tired of this silence, of this impotence: tomorrow, – whenever the Lord wills, His Love, like an impetuous wind too long compressed, with greater force will be outpoured upon the world with greater force.” Most of the chronicles of the saints record such an experience – not so much in the beginning, but when they are further up and further in. Repeatedly in this diary we read statements like “I am perfectly useless to Him” (June 9); “I no longer belong to anybody – I’m thrown away in a corner like a useless being” (October 1); “Many times man deceives himself that he has a purpose in his work. God also took this illusion away from me” (October 5). These do not sit well with us, because we prefer a more aggressive kind of Christianity, one in which we can keep busy by keeping charge over ourselves. But Barsotti teaches us to wait. Wait in silence. Wait motionlessly.

I have received permission from Chorabooks to share some passages from the diary as a sample of its content. What follows is selected more or less at random – one can open the diary anywhere and encounter such tender reflections. But the first two passages I chose deliberately. They are ones where Barsotti uses the imagery he chose for the title under which to first publish the diary, the imagery of being motionless. It sounds contradictory to say, but Barsotti concludes there is movement in this motionlessness, communion in our solitude, peace in our struggle. Such paradoxes he shares with us for our encouragement.

David W. Fagerberg
University of Notre Dame

Selections from The Motionless Flight

September 21 – Receiving Jesus in communion I transform myself into him, I become the Son – all divine life submerges me in a motionless and pure fullness. I live in an unnamed depth like the very solitude of the infinite Being.

I see God’s holiness in me, in me is his purity: it is like my own life, because my life is God.

As if God would live through me: in me and through me Divine Charity wants to become a Living Word. My heart is opened as if it has no bounds, to the full measure of God, who gives Himself to me, the defenses of selfishness are smashed, all the limits of the “ego” become less and God alone seems to live in me.

 

Dec. 12 – As the sacrosanct humanity of Christ was completely abandoned to the Word, so you too must abandon yourself to the Power of God.

In every act you have to plummet and disappear into the vortex of divine Life that is the immobile and infinite Fullness.

Not more or less – the soul gives all of herself, abandons all of herself to the infinite Power of Love. God alone: the perfect Peace of an eternal possession. The flow of life stops – man remains overwhelmed by the weight of the motionless Light. This is therefore the unique, eternal life: the death of all that is imperfect, the end of time, the diminishing of every dimension in the sentiment of infinite fullness.

So long as the soul has not given all, she has not given anything – everything she has done is nothing and she no longer knows it. The Holy Spirit moves the soul to give itself totally so that she does not have anything left to give, so that she can give no more. So, man can never remain in himself, but his life is all a heroic stretching beyond any limit. The soul passes all the heroism of the saints: what they have accomplished is still not yet divine life – it surpasses all the evidences, the contradictions, the difficulties, the struggles of the body and of the spirit – surpasses all human measures. Christian life is thus a step forward, a continual, painful anxiety that impels without rest.

June 16 – It is necessary to mature in silence. Silence and apparent mediocrity are the skeleton of a true, deep inner life: they give solidity to the building. Many times the anxious desire for great things, the intolerance of a common life full of troublesome difficulties that prevent us from the fullness of the gift and the fullness of losing ourselves in God, hide a principle of fatigue and boredom. God does not free us from the difficulties and impediments until we are really ready: Let us trust in his wisdom and not grow tired of asceticism. Sweetness and patience.

Oh! how I feel that I cannot escape from your love – it wraps me around on all sides, wins me over. Your will be done! But what do you want from me if not to love me and to love me infinitely? I abandon myself to you. The weight of your love is so great that is necessary that I must die – but how can I reproach you, resent you and bring you bitterness? How would love be infinite, if I could sustain it without dying?

June 19 – It’s now been three days that I have maintained a state of calm and deep union. It is adherence to God that exalted me above all things; I almost did not know human disturbances, and I knew nothing except God: Videte quod Ego sim solus.

The experience of the transcendence of God makes multiplicity extraneous to us, and recollects us in the absolute Unity of God: as if we were along in the entire universe: or rather as if the presence of God would remove everything else, even myself.

June 20 – The glory of God. What can I do for the Lord? And yet God awaits everything from me, as if I were his glory. God has to be revealed in me. There is a need to be loosed, “absolutus” from every earthly thing, from every human misery, from all natural searching: absolute purity: like the purest water that reflects all the heaven’s clarity, like crystal, like ether that is illuminated by all the sunlight and is not seen and is almost like it is not.

June 22 – The relationship between “I” and “you” is that of the Son to the Father – the “you” for every man can be only God, but the “you” of man is contrasted not with an “I” but with “us”. A total gift of self because there are not two “yous” – love of all your heart to God – but together fusion with the whole Church, the reassumption of the whole Church in the “I” that loves.

Before you bring your offering to the altar, go and reconcile with your brother, says the Gospel. The love of neighbor, union with the Church, with “Corpus Christi mysticum” is a necessary condition, an essential premise of our turning to the Father. Every man cannot say “you” unless he has become, in Christ. like an Only Begotten Son, in Christ.

The anxiety of love. The necessity that love consumes all your substance – all your being. In the Spiration of Love, the life of the Father and of the Son is consumed. Nothing must remain that is not consumed by fire: the voracity of fire is just an image of the voracity of love.

God’s true love is acknowledged by this: that it is omnipotent – precisely as it works and because his works are a miracle of creative power (the miracle is the work of freedom, outside of the law). The works are, for St. Teresa, the infallible sign of perfect love: as a contribution to God’s creative activity, to his fecundity. The life of God is supreme activity, and the life of the soul that participates in the life of God in the transforming union is an incessant, vast, powerful activity – such as an overwhelming yet calm divine force – the overflowing of a deep sea.

(Reprinted with permission of Chorabooks, 2020.)


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About David Fagerberg, Ph.D. 2 Articles
David Fagerberg, Ph.D. has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 2003. His area of study is liturgical theology – its definition and methodology – and how the Church’s lex orandi (law of prayer) is the foundation for her lex credendi (law of belief). He has written several books and numerous essays on subjects including liturgy, sacramental theology, Eastern Orthodoxy, linguistic philosophy, scholasticism, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis.

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