In Compagnia (Part II)

DSC01270

Two of the youngest gnocchi makers.


August is here again, and as part of our summer break, I offer you a story I wrote about making gnocchi for our village festival. This is long story for a blog and comes in two parts. To read Part I, click here. I hope you enjoy it and your summer!


I had been on my feet all morning rolling strings of dough and cutting them into bite-sized gnocchi, when someone arrived with a tray of sliced prosciutto crudo on fresh bread and thimble-sized cups of strong black coffee. Both never tasted so good!

But truly, my inspiration and energy only arose from the compagnia of the women around me. At one point, I was standing next to Eleonora, a young woman who had spent seven years in Boston and New York studying music. She started singing “Close to You” by the Carpenters and we sang together for a while, with me helping her with the lyrics. Then suddenly Adelaide threw up her arms and waved them around as she sung, and the rest of the women joined in. She then recited a short poem that she had just invented:

Chi al mare e chi al monte
A fare gnocchi, ci sono tonte
.

Some are vacationing at the beach, others in the mountain sun.
Those who make gnocchi are the stupid ones.

Adelaide was quick to engage me in fun. Whenever I stood at the table quietly dazed by all the activity around me or waiting for a new batch of dough to be made, she would pitch a few small balls of dough across the table at me, as if to say, “Don’t just stand there, roll gnocchi!”

DSC01283

One of the oldest sugo makers. Clara is 87.

And so it went. Elisabetta, one of the younger dough makers and a teacher of mathematics, complained one morning when we stood beside each other. “Don Stefano! He wants us all to go to Paradise, so why does he only talk about Hell?!  He should be encouraging us on what we have done right, not just telling us about how we are all ready for Hell.”

To be honest, I have enjoyed Don Stefano’s sermons. A tiny, slightly hunched man, our village priest wears thick, square glasses that make him look like he’s ready for scuba diving. Whenever he starts to preach, Don Stefano carefully examines this watch, but then he never seems to check the time when he stops. His sermons are adopted to best suit his agrarian audience. One time he told us that we were like hoes in God’s hands. “If the hoe is broken, how can you work the field? It’s the same with God. If you are not whole in the grace of God, how can God use you to sow his profound Love?”

After our worked finished on Friday morning (and every day after that), it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We all sat down together to eat lunch, and this was the best time for me. Everyone was satisfied with a job well done, happy to be together and playful in word and deed.

DSC01413We all started out eating gnocchi in order to test the offering that would be made later that night. The gnocchi was deemed good, the sugo too acidic. Then there was a big discussion of the best way to remove the acidic taste from the sugo, with the debate ranging from sugar to bicarbonate of soda. I don’t know which one won out, but undoubtedly the master chefs did their magic. Meanwhile I was bragging about how the gnocchi were the best ever because this year they had un sapore americano, the taste of an American touch.

On Saturday morning, I came in wondering about Sunday mass. How would we all manage to make enough gnocchi and then, with our aprons covered in flour and cooked potato, clean ourselves up in time for the 11:30 service? “Oh, don’t worry!” Rita beside me said assuredly as we rolled and cut and rolled and cut. “The mass comes here! We all just go outside and Don Stefano does the mass outside the kitchen that day.”

DSC01356

The experts make the gnocchi dough. Gnocchi are made of potato, egg, flour and salt.

That’s precisely what happened, and I guess for Elisabetta’s sake, he did preach about Hell. “Some people say how wonderful it would be to die at home in your sleep,” he said, setting up his punch line. “Ha ha. Hmmm. Yes, it’s wonderful if you go to bed without sin! But if your soul is full of sin, then such a death is a terrible thing. A terrible thing!”

I guess this is a good time to tell you that I not only make gnocchi in compagnia, but I also sing. I have joined the church choir, something I have never done before in my life. I thought it might be good for my Italian, and besides I like to sing. Every Monday evening we practice in the ancient church, practicing the songs for the following Sunday.  In between melodies, the evening is full of scherzi or joking and teasing of one another.

Most of the songs are impossibly low in pitch for me to maneuver. However, I like to sit next to Clara, a heavy smoker whose deep, husky voice boomerangs around the church. She’s handy for me to sit next to because she clearly pronounces all the lyrics, some of which are like tongue twisters.. Try just saying (I recommend starting out really slowly):

Questo miracolo incredibile, Questo prodigio indescrivibile.”

That last word alone has six… Count them! SIX syllables. In total this one verse has 22 syllables! Now run them together into a melody, sing at top speed, and make sure every syllable is distinctly enunciated. I noticed that with my American accent the vowels seems to slur into one another while the Italian singers nicely clip their vowels into staccato peccadillos of clear song.

Oh well, it doesn’t seem to matter. They all keep telling me how brava I am (I’m not) and how well integrated I’ve become (whatever that means). In any case, I am in compagnia and so are they. And in the end, that’s all that seems to matter.


This story and all its photos are copyright of Catherine Ann Lombard, 2018.


 

In Compagnia (Part I)

DSC01335


August is here again, and this weekend I will be busy making gnocchi for our village sacra (food festival). A part of our summer break, I offer you a story I wrote about this experience.

This is long story for a blog and comes in two parts. I hope you enjoy it and your summer!


From the day I arrived in the village, the following words seemed to follow me around:

“Do you know about the sagra dello gnocco (the gnocco festival)? The first weekend in August? Gnocchi d’oca! (Small potato dumplings in goose tomato sauce.) They  are famous all over the area! And the women always need help in the kitchen…”

I would stand in front of my new neighbor smiling and nodding, beset with the knowledge that she (it was always a she) was waiting for me to volunteer. Since 1986, the village has hosted the Gnocchi D’Oca festival the first weekend in August on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, complete with music and dancefloor in the open air. Whenever we mention the town to anyone from the surrounding area, they always start raving about the delicious gnocchi.

Continue reading

The Only Way Out is Up!

Assagioli wrote the motto of psychosynthesis as:

000193 the only way out is up

Motto of Psychosynthesis: “The only way out is the way up”

During Journey to Places of the Higher Self, September 17–23, we will be doing just that… As we descend into the Frasassi Caves, some of the largest in Europe, we will have no choice… the only way out will be the way up!

grotta di frasassi

The Frasassi Caves, Italy

Assagioli often wrote about how mountain climbing can be a symbol of ascent to spiritual heights… And we promise to bring you to 1000-year-old mountaintop churches in the Apennines. But he also wrote about how caves can be a symbol for “going deeper, descending to the ‘bottom/depths’ of our being.” Don’t worry, we won’t be too long inside the Frasassi Caves, just long enough to “get ready to transform”! Not to mention the promise of a delicious picnic lunch in the Italian countryside afterwards.

Places are still available for this special Journey to Places of the Higher Self. Why not join us? If you have any questions, please contact Catherine at:

A Mystic’s Gift

Evelyn-Underhill

Evelyn Underhill

Recently I wrote about Sorella Maria – “A Wild and Free Creature”, who founded a small Franciscan community in the heart of Umbria. While further exploring the life of this inspiring spiritual pioneer, I discovered that Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) also visited the Hermitage of Campello in 1927 (a place that we too will visit on September 20 during  Journey to Places of the Higher Self). (You can read the essay Underhill wrote for The Spectator about her visit, A Franciscan Hermitage.)

According to Underhill’s biographer Dana Greene, this one-day visit was fundamental to her decision to return to active participation in the Anglican Church in which she had been baptized and confirmed. She wrote:

“Certainly nothing has ever brought me so near to the real Franciscan spirit as a few hours spent in the Vale of Spoleto with a little group of women who are trying to bring back to modern existence the homely, deeply supernatural and quite unmonastic ideal of the Primitive Rule.”

By the time Underhill paid a visit to the Hermitage, she had already published her best-selling book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. This book, published in 1911, reclaimed mysticism as part of the human condition. In her 500+ page book (with more than 1000 footnotes), she explored for the first time in a systematic and scholarly way mysticism throughout the ages and across cultures, nations, and religions. While she focused on mysticism in Christianity, she also examined Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other belief systems. She defined mysticism as:

“The expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order, whatever be the theological formula under which it is to be understood.”

Her rich work explores mysticism from the perspectives of psychology, theology, symbolism and magic (to name a few). Ultimately, she draws the conclusion that mysticism is open to everyone. Anyone can be grasped and transformed by Divine Love.

Assagioli extensively refers to Underhill’s book in his writings. While searching in his online archives, I was actually stunned by how much he appreciated her scholarship and understanding of the transcendent. Underhill saw the soul’s mystic journey as a series of five states: awakening, purification, illumination, the dark night of the soul, and union.

Assagioli’s notes that refer to Underhill mention these states, as well as many other transpersonal qualities. Here are just a few examples:

 

 

Similar notes by Assagioli in which he refers to Underhill, include these topic headings:

Illuminative Way Reality
Divine Comedy Joy
Self Being
Will Intuition
Contemplation Inspiration
Aesthetic Way Spiritual Beauty
Intellectual Way Immanence
Regeneration Mystical Dialogue
Receptivity

Besides being a writer, theologian, mystic, and spiritual director, Underhill was also a radical pacifist in the late 1930s when Europe was seeing the rise of fascism. During the same time, Assagioli was actively participating and leading international pacifist meetings. By 1935 he was under surveillance for this activity and ultimately his pacifist stance was the reason for his arrest in 1940. Ida Palombi, who would later become his secretary and collaborator, tells how government agents would frequently “wander about, stop and look inside” Assagioli’s home in Rome while he conducted meetings. By 1939, Assagioli was under even stricter surveillance and his meetings were being recorded.

015491 Quote in Italian on Illumination Underhill

Assagioli’s note referencing Underhill’s book Mysticism. “Illumination. A sudden, intense, joyous, perception of an immanent God of the Universe, of the divine beauty and of this ineffable splendor in which the individual is immersed.”

Therefore, I found it quite poignant to also find Underhill’s article “Meditation on Peace” in Assagioli’s archives, published in November 1939. He must have appreciated its message, which is timeless and remains wise today. But this message is not an easy one to swallow. Underhill insists that a true pacifist must see all of Creation as an “object of cherishing care.” All of Creation includes:

“The violent as well as the peaceful… The Government as well as the Opposition, the Sinners as well as the Saints. Some inhabitants of this crowded nursery are naughty, some stupid, some wayward, some are beginning to get good. All are immersed in the single tide of creative love which pours out from the heart of the universe and though the souls of self-abandoned men…”

Well, you might say that the “nursery” is still full of all these naughty, stupid, and wayward children, along with a few of us trying to “get good.” Thank goodness for that saving grace – the “tide of creative love” pouring out from the heart of the universe! But Underhill doesn’t let us stop and rest there. She immediately calls upon us to move higher, and the climb is not an easy one:

“We are called to renounce hostile attitudes and hostile thoughts towards even our most disconcerting fellow sinners; to feel as great a pity for those who do wrong as for their victims, to show an equal generosity to the just and to the unjust.”

These words could easily have been written by Assagioli himself. While in Regina Coeli prison and afterwards, Assagioli never renounced his captors, embodying Underhill’s call for meditative peace all his life.

Eremo delle Allodole 2

Entrance lane to the Hermitage of Campello

When Underhill met Sorella Maria, they spent time together sitting quietly in the Umbrian woods.  Underhill made the point to ask Sorella Maria, whose friendship she counted as one of her greatest privileges, about her conceptions of the spiritual life. Underhill found the response “startlingly at variance with the peaceful surroundings”:

In tormento e travaglio servire I fratelli. In torment and with great effort, to serve your brothers and sisters.”

Perhaps this is the greatest gift of any mystic – to first recognize the profound sense of pain and need of the world and acknowledge one’s passionate desire to help it. To then maintain the love and will needed to bare the tremendous tension between one’s inner peace alongside such suffering. To quietly stand as a witness. Humbly radiate Love. Silently offer heartfelt prayer. And attempt, in whatever way possible, courageous action.


Here is another article about the relationship between Underhill and Sorella Maria: “Discovering Sister Maria” by A.M. Alchin.

Click here to read a lecture Assagioli gave at the Third Summer Session of the International Centre of Spiritual Research at Ascona, Switzerland, in August 1932, in which he extensively quotes Underhill’s work.

Bread and the Art of Synthesis

bread with kitty

My cat Kitty is not impressed with the fresh bread from the oven. © Catherine Ann Lombard, 2018

Synthesis occurs when a pair of opposites continually interact until they are brought into equilibrium. Ultimately the opposites are transmuted into a transpersonal quality. But synthesis is even more than the balancing of opposites. Assagioli writes that:

“Synthesis is not just between two opposites, but between multiple and heterogeneous endpoints. All syntheses of polarities are true but partial syntheses. Complete syntheses unite several elements into one organic unity.”

In this light, bread becomes a beautiful metaphor for synthesis – the unification of many diverse ingredients into a higher organic form that gives life. Bread unites a multitude of opposites – dry, earthy flour with the fluidity of water. Sugar (to help the yeast rise) with salt (for taste and preservation). Air within the dough is heated by the fire in the oven. Finally, the baker’s two hands, one heart and skillful will bring them all together so they might ultimately be transformed into nourishment for body and soul. Continue reading

“A Wild and Free Creature”

Eremo delle Allodole 1

The gate of the Eremo di Campello (Design by Carlotta Gentili)

One of the special Places of the Higher Self that we will visit in September is the Eremo di Campello, near the town of Trevi in Umbria, Italy. The final road up to the Hermitage is an unpaved, unmarked climb through olive groves and wooded hillsides. The feeling is desolation mixed with expectation. When we finally arrive in front of a locked wooden gate guarded by a furiously barking dog, the feeling turns to “What am I doing here?” But soon Sister Lucia appears with grand tranquility and a warm smile. She slowly walks down a long path from the Hermitage towards us and swings the gate open. “Welcome in Peace,” she says, inviting us inside. Continue reading

Confessions of a Smartphone Virgin

giseldas-phone.jpg

My neighbor Giselda’s (92) telephone. When asked about it, she said: “The phone company came years ago to give me a new one and I sent them away. ‘Why do I need a new one?’ I asked them. ‘This one works fine.’ (photo by Catherine Ann Lombard)

Okay. I know this sounds half-crazy… But I have never owned a smartphone. People keep wanting me to go on WhatsApp and I keep thinking… What’s Up with this WhatsApp? I’m already spending too much time writing and researching on my desk computer, not to mention answering 800 emails just to meet someone for a coffee.

Granted, I don’t have an extended family with whom I need to keep in touch with. My husband is usually right down the hallway. We actually share the one dumbphone we own. Like in the good ol’ days when the phone sat in the corridor and everybody had the same phone number. People call me and are surprised when he answers. People call him and are surprised when I say ‘Hello’.

I’m probably the only Western woman to drive off to the supermarket without a phone. I never seem to remember to take it with me. It’s a nuisance most of the time. When I lived in Germany, 2 km from the Dutch border, it would constantly beep to tell me that I was now in Germany, now in the Netherlands, now in Germany, now in the Netherlands. This dumbphone thought I was the dummy. Continue reading