As Fragile and Precious as Murano Glass

1d0f624d863fab3d2ecab1d1e13d5671Taken from Missione Salute Year XXIX – n. 3 May/June 2016

By Fr. Luciano Sandrin

Frailty accompanies our lives. And it has a thousand ways of making itself felt. It touches our bodies, our minds, our relationships and our spirits. For the culture that we breathe in, it is often an image of weakness, to be removed or overcome at all costs, even with attempts at disguise, which, indeed, are not always successful. It evokes meanings that involve vulnerability but also delicacy, sensitivity and preciousness. Eugenio Borgna, a psychiatrist who is particularly attentive to the most hidden and precious nuances of life, in his book La fragilità che è in noi (‘The Frailty that is in us’) writes the following summarising words about frailty: ‘in frailty are hidden the values of sensitivity and delicacy, of worn-out kindness and dignity, of intuition of the unspeakable and the invisible that are in life, and these allow us to immerse ourselves with greater ease and greater passion in the feelings and the emotions, the existential ways of being, of people other than ourselves’.

Our relationships can lay bare our frailty and quite often they wound it and amplify it. And we say many words to each other: words that help or humiliate; that comfort or weaken; that open up to hope or to hopelessness; words that flee hurriedly without passing by way of the heart; fleeting words that do not look in the eyes of the interlocutor; words that have forgotten the therapeutic value that have been received as a gift; words that wound in the other person his or her precious silences, which are attacked in a hurried way without seeking to intuit their motivations. In dialogue with silence, we can understand the invisible and inexpressible wounds of the spirit and heal them without leaving scars. ‘Only in silence’, writes this author, ‘one understands to the full the abysses of frailty that are in us, and in people other than ourselves, and one learns to welcome them in their lights and their shadows’.

Our emotions are fragile – sadness like joy is fragile. Sadness is a part of life and it is easily wounded by loneliness and by being abandoned, by neglect and by indifference. And by inopportune and hurried words of comfort. But joy is also fragile, and precious, the image and the expression of a heart that opens up to love for the other and to solidarity. And at times it is more difficult to be joyful with a person who is joyful than to suffer with a person who suffers.

Hope that lives by a future that does not yet exist, suspended between desires and possible disappointments, is also fragile. Hope is a form of frail life that constantly runs the risk of melting in face of the painful events of life, but which never disappears. In the experience of a sick person, and of those who assist them and treat them, hope displays all of its preciousness, but also its vulnerability, which exposes it to the wounds of indifference and neglect. This is the green thread of my latest book on the Psychology of the Sick.

Many frailties conceal themselves and have the face of those who pass us by every day and whom we do not acknowledge. Frailties which at times we see with our eyes but which do not move our hearts. The frailties in other people but also in us. The frailty of the man who falls sick but also the frailty of the person who treats him. Frailty makes us similar, even though its ‘faces’, its expressions, can change in the various situations of our lives. Saints experienced these expressions of frailty as well, at times in painful forms. St. Camillus experienced them; the life itself of Jesus is marked by them.

It is important to educate ourselves to recognise the frailty that is in us and the frailty that dwells in other people; to see it as a form of life that needs alliances, human presences that are attentive when listening and able to create communities of care in which the strongest – not defined once and for all – offer their hand to the weakest. Not forgetting, however, as Eugenio Borgna ends his small but precious book by saying, that frailty is ‘visible only through eyes that are wet with tears’, and by those who have refined their attention and sensitivity by passing through the experience of pain.

Frailty is an expression of the human condition; it is inside our very anatomy and our psychology. It marks our lives: it is precious and fragile, like Murano glass or Bohemian crystal, beautiful, elegant, able to give light to light, but little is needed to break it into fragments. It is always at risk before the blows of life.

All of us have to a certain extent the idea that frailty is the characteristic of a particular population, of people other than ourselves. In reality, nobody is safe from frailty. All of us are to a certain extent frail clay vases – as St. Paul reminds us – which bear, however, valuable treasures that should be stewarded and offered.


Luciano Sandrin