In Compagnia (Part I)

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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.

Each night of the festival, approximately 1000 people ascend upon the hilltop village for dinner. Just imagine how many gnocchi that means! And these village women would not be caught dead opening plastic bags of prepackaged dumplings or jars of factory-made sauce. No. Never. Each and every gnocchi must be made fresh everyday … by hand! The hands of the village women. And they were quick to let me know that this also meant me.

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Gnocchi Making Table with kitchen in the background.

At first I shuddered. Do not dare underestimate these village women! Most of them were born soon after World War II, before electricity came to the village, when washing clothes meant carrying them on your head to the nearest fountain or stream. I am, after all, a spoiled American-born baby-boomer – raised on Velveta cheese and too much television. These women work. Their daily lives, fueled by very strong expresso, can include tending their large garden, making jam from hand-picked blackberries, killing a dozen chickens, rolling tagliatelle – enough for ten people at pranzo, taking care of grandkids, cleaning the family crypt at the cemetery, arriving promptly at 5pm to the church to say the rosary together, and running down to the pharmacy to pick up nonna’s medicine. How could I ever keep up with them making gnocchi?

Despite my worries, I was soon baptized with flour, warm potato dough and the click-click-click of the pastry cutter. At first I thought I might be relegated to peeling hot potatoes – all six tons. But instead on Friday morning, I was given a hair net (I had arrived with my own apron) and was ushered to a huge table around which more than a dozen women stood rolling long ropes of dough and chatting away. Well, I say ‘chatting’ but it was really more like animated shouting and peels of laughter at the high volume on which Italians seem to thrive.

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Our village priest Don Stefano (wearing glassses in the center) takes a break from peeling potatoes.

Not long after I arrived that morning, Don Stefano, the village priest for the past 32 years, descended in full liturgical garb upon the gathering of about 30 people, all at their assigned kitchen posts. Standing quietly, we all said an “Our Father,” and then Don Stefano bestowed his general blessing on our gnocci undertakings. The sign of the cross finished off our prayer and shouts once more flew around the kitchen. One of the men came over to me to ask jokingly if I had brought ear plugs.

Meanwhile, Don Stefano slipped out of his green vestments into a hairnet and apron and was at the potato peeling table, which was manned mostly by men. “Why Don Stefano is peeling potatoes!” I said quite surprised. “Oh yes,” one of the women smiled tenderly as you might towards an inquistive child. “Everyone does their part for the sagra.”

Everyone’s part was clearly pre-determined, and I quickly sensed a strong kitchen hierarchy. I had been warned beforehand not to even offer my meager services to the women in charge of the sugo (tomato sauce). These echelon cooks take their posts and secret ingrediants very seriously. When I did dare to venture into the kitchen where the sauce was simmering in order to snap a few photos, I met the most experienced of the workers. Clara, the oldest member of the kitchen staff (age 87), was sitting in one of the few chairs available deboning roasted fowl. “What’s that?”I asked. “They’re geese.” She said. And then quickly fired back with a smile, “Well, they were geese.”

Back in the gnocchi assembly line, people were boiling, peeling, and straining steaming potatoes into large blue plastic tubs. To transform this potato paste into gnocchi dough, two pairs of elite women with strong backs and arms stood on raised platforms at each end of our large table. The blue tub full of potato mash would arrive and spill out in front of them.

They would then add flour, salt and 3-4 eggs to the potato paste. Nothing was measured. Everything they added was entirely by feel and sight. These two women would then knead the paste together into a huge ball of dough, which they would eventually divide in two, each of them continuing to knead. The secret was to knead just enough for the dough to come together and still have a light, airy texture and not to add too much flour which gives you hard gnocchi. Finally, the dough would be divided into large logs, sliced into 4-inch long pieces and cut into smaller balls for the gnocchi makers to start rolling, rolling, rolling…

As one of these gnocchi makers, I rolled these smaller balls of dough into ropes about an inch in diameter and then started slicing them – click click click – into one-inch pieces. The dough of each newly made batch always felt slightly different. Sometimes the women would comment, “This batch is softer.” or “This one is harder.” And the rest of us would nod in agreement. Sometimes the batch of dough was still warm to the touch, and other times when I handled the dough, the sweet aroma of cooked potato floated over me.

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How to the Italian women always seem to do it? Beatrice looks stylish while collecting gnocchi!

We were always dusting our cut gnocchi with a little flour – too much flour and the gnocchi sticks to the bottom of the pan while cooking, too little and they stick to each other. Then young girls, not yet old enough to roll the dough, would arrive with trays upon which we would scoop up our gnocchi and have them carried away to the kitchen. As we added the cut pieces, the girls would shake these trays to evenly distribute the gnocchi. At one point, I started shaking my hips in rhythm with the tray when adding my gnocchi. At first the poor pre-teen girl who had to deal with my antics smiled shyly, then became embarrassed, and finally somewhat despondent with my ridiculous behavior.

From the tray, the gnocchi were carried to a large vat of boiling, salted water, cooked for 2 minutes, given an ice bath, tossed lightly in olive oil, returned to a fresh tray, and finally placed inside a gigantic refrigerator to await the final preparations that evening. Later they would be cooked once again for 1-2 minutes and doused with the famous goose tomato sauce.

Having baked my own bread for more than ten years, I was used to handling dough and settled easily into this job. Still the women were impressed, and another foreigner who had lived in the village for the past 12 years was surprised to find me working there. “I’ve been coming to help for years, and they never put me at the rolling table,” she said amazed. “Have you ever made gnocchi before?”

I had to admit I did only once, years ago when we were first living in Italy. At the time, what amazed me was just how much flour and how little potato the small dumplings actually are, how much work they take to make, and how that work is not worth feeding just two people. By my calculation, the time it takes to open a plastic bag of pre-packaged gnocchi and boil them was equivalent to the time they seemed to disappear from the plate in front of my husband. I told him afterwards that I would never make gnocchi again.

But as they say here:

Per compagnia anche prese moglie un frate. In company, even a priest takes a wife.”

Meaning that being together can cause you to do something you would never try alone. It’s the being together that matters most, and I noticed the first week I lived in Pieve that the people simply like spending time together – eating and talking (like most Italians), but also just being together.

Joy seems to be equated with numbers. The more people sitting around the table eating, the greater the allegria. People often tell me what a nice time they had by simply reporting on how many people were around the table: “We were ten altogether!” or “When we sat down, we were 22.” That entire weekend I experienced a great communal joy of simply being, working, and sharing together the creation of a successful festival.

For three consecutive mornings, I would spend four hours rolling rope after rope of dough and cutting them into bite-size gnocchi. Believe me, that is something I would never do alone. But only in compagnia.


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


 

The Only Way Out is Up!

Assagioli wrote the motto of psychosynthesis as:

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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!

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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”

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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

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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

A Florentine Well-Spring

Photo of Assagioli in glass caseAnother scorching afternoon in Florence, Italy. Thirty pilgrims have gathered at Casa Assagioli, the home where the founder of Psychosynthesis Roberto Assagioli lived, worked, taught, and wrote. It is 2012 and the first International Meeting at Casa Assagioli. The guests hail from all over the world — Canada, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, France, Haiti, Spain, Poland, Ireland, the USA and, of course, Italy.

Upon arrival, we are warmly greeted by the members of Gruppo Alle Fonti (roughly translated as the “Group at the Well Spring”, the dedicated curators of Assagioli’s materials.  After introductions, we divide ourselves into two groups for the house tour. Soon English, Italian, and French fly up and down the two-story villa. Hung on walls throughout the house, white boards display Assagioli’s handwritten words and diagrams, beckoning all to reflect, know, love. Continue reading