Tag Archives: Italy

Burning Old Growth for Joyous Renewal

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

We are now at the end 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.

Dante-Divine Comedy Mountain of Purgatory

Dante’s Mountain of Purgatory

Assagioli often referred to Dante’s Divine Comedy as a “wonderful guide and description” for our personal and spiritual development. He wrote:

“The first part of Dante’s pilgrimage is a long difficult path of purification and expiation across the kingdoms of his lower nature. Divine wisdom is not revealed to him directly: in his impure, unregenerated state, still surrounded by the impenetrable veil of matter, man is unable to directly contemplate the supreme truth.”

Similarly, Evelyn Underhill, in her classic book Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, wrote that Dante’s Purgatorio was a period of “self-stripping, which no mystic system omits.”

I find it interesting that Lent – this period of purification and expiation – always coincides with the time before and after the spring equinox. In the Italian countryside, now is the time to prune the olive and fruit trees, prepare the land for spring planting, clean the manure out of donkey stables, and clip back the vines. At the same time, as I walk through the open fields, rabbits and hares flash by, pheasants in their brilliant plumage call out, and deer start to appear at dusk. My neighbors’ chickens and geese are all suddenly busy laying. Often I am graced with a dozen fresh eggs.

DSC04110 eggs

What to do when your neighbor gives you so many fresh chicken and geese eggs? Make ravioli of course!

For the Italian contadini, early spring (like Lent) is a time of clearing away dead wood, burning unnecessary growth, and discarding all that is old and no longer serves. And while this process of pruning and clearing and cleaning takes place, we are simultaneously able to enjoy the beginnings of new life.

Levels of Purification

014005 Purification of the Personality

Body. Assagioli calls on us to purify ourselves on many different levels. The first step is purification of the body. This means a healthy diet; avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, drugs; and plenty of exercise, fresh air and water. However, he does warn that when we become too fixated on physical purification, we can actually hinder other more important practices.

Emotions. Assagioli insists that what is most urgently needed is purification of our emotions. We start with identifying our feelings, sensations, thoughts and desires and then disidentifying from them. He wrote:

“What is the significance of ‘purity of heart’?

Complete absence of personal desires – absence of every thought for oneself – the abandonment of every idea or desire for compensation or benefit – full disinterest – self-giving – the renouncement of every pleasure, of every personal satisfaction.”

Imagination. Perhaps even more vital today, given all the images available to us through social media, is our need to purify our imagination. More than 50 years ago, Assagioli named these images that exploited “man’s morbid fascination for violence, horror, cruelty, and perverted sex.” He called them “collective poison, a psychological smog”. We all know how viral these images are today (along with tweets, which are simply verbal images as opposed to true discourse) and how harmful they have become to society as a whole.

To clear such psychological smog, Assagioli calls us to practice reflective meditation, mental silence, and the self-identification exercise. The goal is to eliminate all impurities from the personality that are preventing us from being receptive to the energies from the Higher Self or God. Assagioli wrote:

“Joy is one achievement that follows purification and the active practice of virtue. Joy is a result of a state of purity, of the absence of egoism, of harmony with God and with humankind.”

Purification for the Planet

Our personal act of purification is not just for ourselves alone. It also desperately needs to be carried out because, when we do this work, we are also participating in the great work of planetary purification.

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Bruno (76 years old) becomes one with the tree he is pruning.

At the physical level, when we purify our bodies, we also are helping to raise consciousness at a higher, collective level. We bring energy to matter in its entirety – animal, vegetable, and mineral – helping to purify it from contamination and exploitation, a result of humankind’s selfish purposes. Assagioli even suggests that we can symbolically purify and bless matter by spraying our cash with perfumed holy water!

At an emotional level, our purification helps to energize the dispersion of negative emotions in the world. Purification at our mental level helps to melt down and destroy old concepts, dogma, fanaticism and ideologies that produce fears and have hypnotized many people. We turn to Assagioli again:

“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.”

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Assagioli’s note from his archives.

In the end, purification brings redemption. Our souls, through suffering and sacrifice, are renewed. Like the olive tree and the grapevines whose branches are cut bare, promising new fruit, we too are reduced to our true selves, ready for new, fresh growth.

Gifting Ashes, Gifting Oil

The Olive Harvest

Lately, I have been attending a series of talks about the Maternal Gift Economy. It’s an interesting concept that challenges our preconceptions of how the exchange of services and products must take place.

Some might say we have an exchange economy, but the reality is (and has been) that the global economy is an exploitive economy. As Assagioli wrote we are driven by Original Fear – fear of not having enough food, fear of hunger – and by Original Greed, which fundamentally is the desire for unlimited growth. Hence our tendency to consume and purchase, possess, save and hoard.

In contrast, a gift-based economy is grounded in the values of nurturing and care rather than competition and greed. To begin with, we might change how we talk about our services rendered. For example, when speaking about the medical staff who are having to deal with the onslaught of Covid-19 patients, we say they are ‘sacrificing’ themselves. But what changes inside us when we exchange the word ‘sacrifice’ for ‘gift’? Try saying: “Our doctors and nurses are gifting their expertise, care, time, and lives” and see how that feels.

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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. 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.

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School Bells for Joy

This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.
(Psalm 34:6)

Joy at School

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

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.

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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

Free and Wild Creatures Abound

Readers of A Free and Wild Creature have been sending me photos of themselves with my book. You too can become an Official Free and Wild Creature! It’s very easy, just send me a photo of yourself with the book or post your Official Free and Wild Creature photo to the Love And Will Facebook page. Here’s a few to inspire you…

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Thank you everyone!

Official Free and Wild Creatures!

KittyReaders of A Free and Wild Creature have been sending me photos of themselves with my book. What fun! This has inspired me to announce that you too can become an Official Free and Wild Creature! It’s very easy, just send me a photo of yourself with the book or post your Official Free and Wild Creature photo to the Love And Will Facebook page. Here’s a few to inspire you… 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

Wedding Bells for Joy

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Joy.

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