The 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.
I spend last Saturday talking to strangers. As a volunteer for the charity Caritas, I spent two hours in front of a local supermarket asking people to donate food to the Italian National Food Bank. This experience meant that I wore a plastic yellow bib (which declared my legitimacy) while dangling plastic yellow bags in front of passing strangers.
Those who were interested in helping, took the bag and filled it with rice, pasta, tomato sauce, olive oil (this is Italy after all!), baby food or canned vegetables. The donated goods were then collected, boxed and sent off to the local food bank.
I startled most of the shoppers that day with my distinct American accent. “Buon giorno!” I called out cheerily. “Would you like to participate in our food collection for the poor?” I asked this at least 100 times that morning and, as you can imagine, the reactions varied. Some simply said ‘No.’ Some said they had already donated at another supermarket. One man said that he could actually use the yellow plastic bag, thank you very much. Continue reading →
This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.
Joy at nursery school.
Ten months ago, I wrote a blog about a Nigerian refugee family living in Italy who I and my husband are trying to help through the Catholic charity Caritas. In January, Samuel and Rose (not their real names), at the advice of their lawyer, were hoping to marry in order to strengthen their case. With gratitude, we were able to raise the money they needed to obtain the necessary documents and they were happily married on 15 March.
But like most immigrant stories, their lives continue to be difficult.
Samuel has not been able to find work, partly from pride, partly from discrimination, mostly because he doesn’t speak a word of Italian despite living in the country for five years. We have done our best. Kees accompanied him to an interview at the diocese in Assisi that had 30 job placements for immigrants. But afterwards they told the Director of the local Caritas to not send any more applicants who have zero Italian language skills. Continue reading →
This 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.
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 →
Not long ago, I reflected on the process of forgiveness and how much time it can take. Recently, I heard a fascinating interview of the playwright and author Eve Ensler about her new book The Apology. Throughout her childhood, Ensler had been physically and sexually abused by her father. Decades after his death, she decided to write an apology for him – the apology that she had yearned to hear all her life. The book is written entirely from his perspective. In its “Introduction”, she talks about using her imagination to create the words she needed to hear her father say:
“My father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.”
With standing room only, the bus sped down the freeway on a bright warm morning. Once we turned onto the bollenstreek, long ribbons of intense blue, mauve, and white stretched to the near horizon. At the same time, the colours seemed to invade inside and pour over us. Fields of yellow daffodils blared spring’s final triumph over the particularly long winter. Every head on the bus turned and gazed. And then suddenly, quite spontaneously, everyone sighed together, “Aaahhhhhhhh.” A breath song of collective awe.
We were headed to Keukenhof Gardens, near the Dutch town of Lisse, famous for its variety of bulb flowers, especially tulips. I was feeling particularly triumphant because I had two Dutch people in tow. My husband had finally run out of excuses and decided to appease his American wife. Along with us was a friend who had actually lived near the gardens for the past 35 years and had never visited them before. Continue reading →
Forgiveness is a transpersonal quality whose essential role is often overlooked in the story of Good Friday. Today Christians mark the death of Jesus, who before dying, forgave his executioners as well as the thief crucified by his side. Born out of a paradoxical mixture of human suffering, responsibility and love, the essential power of forgiveness is that is contains rather than proliferates violence. Today seems like a good time to explore where forgiveness comes from and the power it holds. How does it happen? And what are the steps that we, in our personal lives, can take towards it?
Forgiveness is a creative process. You decide how much, when, where, how, and under what conditions to forgive. As Jungian psychologist Clarissa Pinkola Estés writes, “The important part of forgiveness is to begin and to continue” (author’s italics). It does not happen overnight, it does not have to happen fully. But one thing is certain, it cannot happen from your head. We cannot reason our way around, into, or towards forgiveness. Forgiveness comes from the heart, and it requires a great love, a Love beyond ourselves. Continue reading →