On the History of Charisms

“The time has come,” writes Luigino Bruni (The Wound and the Blessing), “to rewrite the economic and civil history of societies, taking seriously the civil and economic role of charisms.” It’s impossible “to understand either the past or the present situation in European economics deeply (or well beyond Europe) without taking charisms seriously” (99). Charisms are sources of social as well as spiritual renewal.

Bruni includes religious charisms but finds them also in the socially innovative people who “committed themselves to create the trade unions, the founders of savings and loans, rural banks, and cooperatives” (100). Charisms are “the blood flowing through the veins” of civil society (99). 

Many men and women with charisms have devoted themselves to relieving poverty, but that relief was never merely a matter of alleviation of pain: “Only those who see something of beauty in a form of poverty (a wound) can redeem it (a blessing)” (101). Ancients considered manual labor demeaning, suitable for slaves; Benedict “placed it at the center of the new life of their [monastic] communities: ora et labora” (101). Francis didn’t see the squalor of Assisi, but “Lady Poverty,” a lady “so beautiful that it led him to choose it as the ideal of his life” (101). All successful work among the poor depends on “eyes to see in the poor, the destitute, the street children, the immigrants, the sick, and even the deformed something great and beautiful for whom it was worth spending their lives” (102). In short, “No problem can be resolved without eros, because those who are helped must feel themselves attractive,  beautiful, and lovable” (103). The destitute must know that those who help them do not despise them but see in them “a form of wealth” (103).

Charisms cannot work without institutions. Sometimes a charism arises within an institution, but even when it doesn’t it needs an institutional structure to have a lasting impact. Bruni suggests that “Civilization advances thanks to [a] charism-institution dynamic.” Institutions aren’t always receptive to charismatic individuals, but they need them for their own survival. Innovators must be left free to innovate, and if they are truly innovative they will not despise or be threatened by imitators. Given their contributions to civil and economic life, institutions must recognize the “primacy of charisms.” 

In a footnote (107, fn 13), Bruni offers his own wish-list for charisms: “charisms . . . for the tragic world of prisons, for the elderly (aging today in the West, with ever smaller families in both space and time, and with a faith that is increasingly unable to make sense of death, is often an experience of great suffering), and for the managers and entrepreneurs who are alone and unhappy . . . who are frequently so poor that they are unaware of being poor.”

In the terms Bruni sets out for his book, a charism is the gift of “different eyes” to see the blessing within the wound, the “embrace concealed in combat” (99).

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