For a year now, I have been a volunteer working one morning a week for the local Italian Catholic organization Caritas, which means ‘charity’ in Italian. This national organization, funded in part by the Vatican and in part by donations, offers food and clothing to the poor, subsidizes housing, pays medical bills, and tries to find or create jobs for the unemployed. During this past year, I have done everything from teach asylum seekers English, pack and distribute groceries for the needy, canvas for food outside supermarkets, help run an auction, perform basic office work, and hang out with people in the Caritas waiting room.
One sweltering July morning, Rose (Note that all names have been changed) showed up hot and sweaty and on the verge of tears. She had walked three miles in the sweltering heat pushing her 4-month-old baby girl in a rickety stroller down a road full of racing Italian traffic and no sidewalk. Rose plopped down onto a chair and started sobbing. Everything was just too much. Despite having been in the country for two years, she still didn’t understand much Italian. (I would realize months later that she could barely read and write.) That day she sat gripping another official letter that can had come in the post. One of those bureaucratic letters full of convoluted language that just tells you to wait for another bureaucratic letter to arrive someday soon. Continue reading →
Seventy-five years ago on November 30th, a young Dutch Jewish intellect died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her legacy of love and reconciliation, as described in her ten diary notebooks and the many letters that she wrote, continues to inspire people around the world. Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) was only 29 years old when she died, but during her short lifespan she managed to live a life of contemplative spirituality and practice in a world that seemed to be falling to pieces around her.
Hillesum grew up in a non-religious home of intellectuals. Her parents were both teachers – her father taught the classics and her mother Russian literature. Hillesum had two younger brothers, both very talented but mentally unstable. She describes having grown up in a “chaotic and sad situation … a madhouse where no human being can flourish.” Continue reading →
One could not help but be horrified by the images last week of Dr. David Dao being violently dragged off United Airlines overbooked flight to make way for a crew member. His forcible abuse and maltreatment by the three policemen ended up with him suffering a concussion, broken nose and the loss of two front teeth. Dr. Dao only wanted to go home to see his patients the next morning.
Since the release of the videos made by fellow passengers, responsibility for this incident has been placed on a number of different people.
Recently, I have discovered a box of notes labelled Servicein Assagioli’s Archives. This box is a treasure trove of inspiration and direction, especially as we enter this year of tremendous responsibility. What is special about most of these notes are that many of them are dated, a rarity among his archive material. Titles of folders inside this box include: “How to help” and “Simple ways of serving.”
The majority are written in Italian and first person, giving the impression that they were meant to encourage and direct himself as he began to integrate and synthesize his own life of service in the world. One of the notes is simply:
Servizio – (Mia) preparazione (Miei) compiti
Service – (My) preparation (My) tasks
Dates of the notes range from 1921—1931. This decade of Assagioli’s life was very fertile – personally, professionally, and spiritually. Assagioli was to become a mature man of 33-43 years. In 1922, he married Nella Ciapetti, and a year later became a father for the first time to his son, Francesco Ilario.
The title of this blog might be a strange one for Christmas week, a time when many of us make a special effort to help those in need, donate money to charity, and volunteer our time to a deserving cause. Given the state of our world, you might argue that “stop saving the world” seems incongruent with what the world really needs today.
“If we examine our motives with all sincerity we often discover that the reasons for our preoccupation with helping others are not as pure and noble as we thought. We begin to realize that the shining alloy, mixed with gold, also contains the base metal of vanity, presumption, proselytism, and – most subtle and concealed of all – the desire to appease our conscience so that we will have some excuse for not undertaking the hard work of inner purification.”
In his book Freedom in Jail (now available for purchase), Assagioli referred twice to the Gospel story of Martha and Mary, and even indicated that he wanted to have an Appendix that would reflect upon it. This appendix was never written, but later his eloquent essay was: “Martha and Mary: The Active Life –The Contemplative Life.” 
In this blog and the next, we will take a closer look at his essay. First of all, Assagioli asks that we read this gospel story with an open mind. So let’s begin with the story: