Category Archives: Italy

A Week under Lockdown

Lockdown in Pieve 2In Umbria, it all happened gradually. Like contracting the virus itself, I suppose. One person wearing a mask at the supermarket and everyone trying to act normal about it. The fervent washing of hands upon entering home. The silly jokes. Do you know the latest Italian slogan? Meno tasse, meno tosse (‘Less taxes, less coughing.’ But in Italian it’s funnier because it rhymes.) The collective denial when everyone shook hands as they offered the Sign of Peace during Sunday Mass.

Then things started to heat up. Like the feverish heat of the virus, I suppose. We were only allowed to go out to work, for food shopping and emergencies. Signs warned us at the supermarket to stand at least a meter apart while waiting on line. But I wondered about buying fruit and vegetables that anyone could handle and easily sneeze on. All the flour was missing from the shelves and the mozzarella nearly gone. Schools were all closed, but bars were open and restaurants too. People were still making plans to meet for dinner.

Suddenly everything nearly stopped. Like haltering breaths strangled by the virus, I suppose. We were all forbidden to leave our homes. The cry “Restate a casa. (Stay at home!)” came from every conceivable social media application. For three days, the mayor was furiously screaming at us from tiny videos on our phone, “I don’t know how to say this any plainer.” He looked tired and sounded exasperated. “This is not a holiday. This is a war. RES-TA-TE–A–CA-SA!” Every sharp syllable of his warning crescendoed into a staccato scolding.

lambsAnd then lockdown. Like weary limbs trembling under the virus, I suppose. We live on a tiny hilltop outside of a tiny village nestled under the Italian Apennines (‘tiny Alps’). The life we have chosen to live these past three years means that we are almost always working at home, in the garden, walking in the countryside. Physically, nothing much changes for me, but I mentally struggle with being limited to the space I now call home.

And still… Spring is vibrating forth. Like the life force that surges against the virus, I suppose. Nature refuses to lock down. The blossoming plum tree in front of my house hums with bees that together sound like a distant freight train. Everyday new wild flowers appear. Yellow primroses blanket a meadow, violets lift a corner of a field to delicate heights, and the plum blossoms throw their perfume my way as I hang up the wash. New lambs are being born and wandering the countryside with their mothers. Nature is surging forth with life. Nothing is locking her up. No one can lock her down.

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Amongst the fervor of spring, there is silence. Like the deep sleep of those fighting the virus, I suppose. Greta has gotten her way. Nobody is traveling by plane these days. The roads are so quiet that we can hear the Rasina gurgling half-a-mile away. A river where Saint Francis is said to have washed his wounds after trying to preach to the locals who only jeered and threw stones at him. A river where decades ago the local children used to swim and catch river shrimp to eat.

With life comes death. Whether we wash our hands or don’t wash our hands, we will, everyone of us, die one day. It’s been scientifically proven! I remember one summer afternoon while visiting Giuseppa in her garden, I heard the mew of a newborn kitten coming from under the pigeon coop. Its mother had abandoned it to die; it was blind and starving. I scooped it up and held it against me as it feebly sought mother’s milk. Distraught, I turned to Giuseppa and said, “Oh, Giuseppa, what should I do? What should I do with this kitten?”

Giuseppa, a wise old farming woman, once told me how as a young girl during and after the Second World War, her job was to take care of the beasts. “We had large bulls to pull the plow, goats, rabbits, pigs, and of course chickens,” she said. “My two brothers were afraid of the bulls, but I used to love to walk with them, pulling them by their nose rings. They were really gentle creatures. You know, with animals, you can always tell how they’re going to behave. It’s with people that you can never be certain.”

But this time, Giuseppa looked at me as if I were a small child who had dropped all the fresh eggs. “What should you do, Caterì?” she asked. “Why, put it down.”

It was a direct and poignant reply. I instantly recognized the need to allow Nature to take its own course, to trust that the mother cat’s instincts were better than mine, to recognize that with sacrifice comes strength and renewal. I put the cat down.

We are all being forced to enter into a time of purification and sacrifice. Oddly enough, we are now halfway through the period of Lent– a time before Easter when Christians seek purification through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts. The forty days of Lent are, in many ways, similar to the Islamic time of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Moslems are expected to fast as well as give alms and read the Qur’an.

Assagioli wrote extensively on what he called “the science of applied purification”, insisting that this work must be undertaken in order to transform the lower characteristics of our personality and bring unity to our soul. He described purification of the personality as a process of re-orientation and elevation of the higher mind. But we can also do this work as a nation. As Assagioli wrote:

“A nation is an entity, a soul analogous to a human soul: it can be noble and high or selfish, proud, overbearing. It is about educating, raising, purifying the soul of one’s nation, of which each of us is a part.”

013919 End of Purification RedemptionAt an emotional level, our purification helps to energize the dispersion of negative emotions in the world. At a mental level, purification helps to melt down and destroy old concepts, dogma, fanaticism and ideologies that produce fears and have hypnotized many people.

Sacrifice, solitude, silence, and social distancing. We are in a time of personal, national, and planetary purification. Our personal act of purification is not just for ourselves alone. We also desperately need to carry out this work because when we do, we are participating in the great work of planetary purification.

Nature is our solace and our guide. She is here to remind us that death is transcendent and life is eternally renewed.

Catherine & Pina under lockdown

The author with a cauliflower from her garden and her dog Pina. All under lockdown.

 

Facing Life’s Ambiguities

ambiguityAccording to Roberto Assagioli, the first stage of any decision is to ascertain the purpose driving us toward our desired goal. During all the subsequent stages of an act of will — deliberation, affirmation, choice, planning and execution – we can often gain energy by returning to reflect on our initial purpose.

However, there may be times when we find ourselves in a difficult situation and unable to understand exactly what we are doing or why. We may feel stuck in a particularly uncomfortable situation.  Or we may have to interact with challenging (sub)personalities, who only trigger our own unresolved issues! Nothing around us seems to feel right anymore. Nothing seems to fit with our ideals or desired aims.

We might be asking ourselves: Whatever are we doing here? Whatever could our purpose be?

Figure 1 Assagioli and Palombi

Roberto Assagioli and Ida Palombi

Eighty years ago, Ida Palombi (1905-1981) posed this exact question to Roberto Assagioli. Having graduated from the University of Rome, in 1939 she found herself working as a social worker and translator for the Ministry of the Interior of Rome under the fascist regime. At the same time, she was regularly attending lessons Assagioli was offering at his home on the Aventine. Continue reading

An Ordinary Extraordinary Christmas

breakfastThe day started out normal enough. Breakfast of homemade bread and jams, creamy sheep cheese from Sardinia, ricotta, and peanut butter from a large jar brought long ago from the Netherlands, all swallowed down with cappuccinos in our usual breakfast cups. That morning we were just a bit more rushed, hurrying out by 8 am to attend the morning mass at the Monastery of St. Luca in Fabriano.

Benedictine nuns in the sober habits sang the psalms in clear – sometimes wavering – voices accompanied by one of the sisters playing the dulcimer. A monk priest said the mass. Afterwards we stood around the 16th century pews listening to Don Ephrem tell stories of when he was first ordained as a priest in Syria. Barely speaking Arabic, he was sent off to a high mountain village to say the Christmas mass.

But first he had to hear confession. The problem was nobody spoke Arabic, they all spoke a mountain dialect. Behind the confessional screen, he begged for mercy, asking the elderly women penitents to recount their sins in a language he might understand. French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, slowly spoken simple Arabic? No, none of those. Only mountain dialect, a slowing dying blend of indecipherable Arabic and language once carried on the wind.

Continue reading

Rocky’s Prayer

Day of the DeadThis weekend, many Italians are traveling to village cemeteries to pay homage to their ancestors. The Catholic feast of All Saints Day on November 1st is a national holiday followed by All Soul’s Day. It is a time for the living to ritually remember the dead – both saint and sinner alike. In preparation, the (mostly older) women are scrubbing tombstones clean and buying votive candles and pots of chrysanthemums to decorate the graves of loved ones. Coinciding with the beginning of darker days and longer nights, this time allows us to pause and consider our own life and death.

fave-in-fiore

Fava bean flowers

The two days devoted to honoring the dead correspond agriculturally to when Umbrian farmers seed their fields. They are also busy burying onion bulbs and garlic cloves with the hope of enjoying sweet shoots in the spring. There is a local saying among our neighbors that All Saint’s Day marks the planting of fava beans. In fact, eating fava beans was once thought to be a way to be in communion with the dead. The bean flower is white with black markings that take the form of the Greek letter thet or θ, which is the first letter of thanatos, meaning ‘death’. Continue reading

A Time for ‘Self-Stripping’

DSC01928 Burn

In the Umbrian countryside, it is time to burn old growth.

We are now halfway through the period of Lent – a time before Easter when Christians seek purification through fasting, prayer, and charitable acts. The forty days of Lent are, in many ways, similar to the Islamic time of Ramadan, which I was fortunate enough to experience while living in Egypt. During Ramadan, Moslems are expected to fast as well as give alms and read the Qur’an.

Assagioli wrote extensively on what he called “the science of applied purification”, insisting that this work must be undertaken in order to transform the lower characteristics of our personality and bring unity to our soul. He described purification of the personality as a process of re-orientation and elevation of the higher mind. Using our will, we burn the dross of our affective and instinctual energies, habits, tendencies and passions. Once clear of the obstacles that prevent us from receiving our higher intuitions, we are free to receive wisdom from the Higher Self. In other words, purification is a necessary process that we all must endure along the journey towards personal psychosynthesis before we are adequately equipped to seek spiritual psychosynthesis. Continue reading

Book Announcement: The First in a Series

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I am happy to announce the publication of A Free and Wild Creature: Women, Service and Motherhood.

Book Cover I am a Wild CreatureThis book is a selection of blogs that have appeared on this website from 2014 to 2019. As the past five years have flown by, these bi-monthly reflections followed each other without any thought on my part to their cohesion or continuity. They simply captured moments in time – concerns, joys, wonder, delight, and sorrow.

And yet, while preparing this series of four small books, the reflections seemed to have mysteriously folded into one another. Like the flotsam washed ashore by the sea, these reflections seemed to have divided themselves by weight, roundness, shape and tone. Continue reading

Snapshot of the Philosophical Library

Note that this blog is an excerpt from my published article: A Snapshot of the Philosophical Library: Florence, Italy, 1922)


Figure 4 Herron-george-1900

George Davis Herron in 1900.

While conducting research, I often become like Alice and Wonderland, chasing rabbits down the garden path. Most recently, I came across a fascinating book, written by George David Herron (1862-1925), an American clergyman, lecturer, and writer from Indiana. In his book The Revival of Italy, published in 1922, Herron has a beautiful passage describing Roberto Assagioli as the inspiration for the Biblioteca Filosofica. (Philosophical Library) in Florence.

A lively center of philosophical discussion, the Philosophical Library was started around 1903-1905 by those studying theosophy. Wanting to deepen their understanding of Oriental philosophy, library members loaned books, organized classes, conferences and published a bulletin.

Assagioli was one of its more frequent visitors.[1] The Philosophical Library’s intent was to create a “free university for philosophical and religious studies” where the public could come and learn more about the current cultural movements such as Pragmatism, Idealism, and Modernism in a non-academic setting. Continue reading