Losing religion, finding god

There are a few fundamental truths which, once you become a parent, crystallize and form the primary touchstones of your existence.  For example, sacks of oranges and cattle prods are all fine and dandy, but if you want real torture try walking barefoot across a cotto floor strewn with Legos.  And, given a choice between twenty minutes of sex or twenty minutes of dead sleep, sleep wins hands down.  Finally, you believe in God.  Or, you don’t.  Either way, it’s time to decide because preschoolers don’t deal well with ethical grey areas.

About six months ago, I drove past a huge basilica in the valley below Assisi, and my five year old piped up from the back seat, “Mamma, what’s that?”  Now, it is probably not such a good thing that my son doesn’t recognize a church in Assisi, which is probably one of the places in which there is the greatest church per capita density on the planet.  “It’s a church,” I told him.

“What do you do there?” he asked.

“Well, you pray.”

“You play?”

“No, pray.”

“What’s praying?”

“Uh, well, that’s when you talk to God”

“What’s God?”

And there it was.  The $64,000 question.  One of the few questions to which I have no answer that I can’t simply respond, “I’m not sure, but I bet Babbo knows.”  Because, quite frankly, my husband isn’t that sure either.

I grew up in a deeply religious family, though of the flower children, guitar plucking, socially liberal kind.  Though I don’t consider myself psychologically scarred by all that, by the time I left home for college I was, let’s say, religion-ed out.  So, after a brief stint over at the Unitarians to detox, I settled into a benign sort of agnosticism. Though I considered myself a practician of the basic judeo-christian ethic which forms the foundation of most western religions, I would only actually show up at Mass once or twice a year to please Grandma.

When I moved to Italy after college, I thought my ambivalence regarding actively practicing a religion would be a problem, but I quickly found that, instead, there are quite a few Italians who are casual Catholics here in Umbria.  And that no one really cared about whether or not I went to Mass, uh, religiously.

Italy, and especially a rural area like Umbria, is undoubtably Catholic.  Italian civic culture is steeped in Catholicism, and in many ways there is no way of seeing where the religious culture ends and the secular begins.  Most holidays in Italy are Catholic feast days, the local parish is very much the fulcrum of social participation in the countryside, and the passage from childhood to adulthood is still generally measured in sacraments:  Christening, first holy Communion, Confirmation, nuptial Mass, and funeral Mass.  Almost all public spaces sport crosses on the walls, even in some businesses where it seems out of place at best, like the local bank.

It is refreshing, in comparison to how in your face religious practice has become in the States, to live in a place where it is not an issue at all.  Part of that is, of course, because something like 98% of the population of Umbria is Catholic, so no one really feels the need to wear their religion on their sleeve.  But even among my few friends here who are active church goers and fervent believers, I have never felt uncomfortable, or judged, or pressured by their belief.  Italians, and, more specifically, Umbrians, tend to be quite pragmatic about their religiosity.  They are often Catholic and communist, both divorce and abortion have been legalized through popular referendum, and they are reluctant proselytizers.

In the years since I’ve moved, I have steadily and quietly shed any dogma which may have lingered in my moral paradigm but also feel like my life here has given me the opportunity to tap into a different spirituality…based on the tennets of secular humanism, no doubt, but still giving my life reference points which have led me to find my own sense of god, even if it’s not God.  Contact with and respect for the natural world.  A feeling of belonging to a comunity.  The importance of family and friends, and prioritizing the time you spend cultivating those relationships.  Recognizing the wonderous beauty in art and architecture.  The joy of eating good food in the context of its history and culture.  The value of slowing down and finding time for quietness.

The late David Foster Wallace said this:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys.  How’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” ….

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.  It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water. This is water.’ It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.”

And this is what I have found here in Umbria.  Perhaps not the God of churches and rites, but instead moments of grace and awareness where all of a sudden I am yanked out of my automatic pilot working and parenting and surviving mode and become aware of an instant in time, a fleeting quotidian miracle, and am reminded “This is water.”  And there I see god.

The view from my house. This is water.


  1. Anne |

    Beautiful thoughts! Every day of experiencing the awesome wonder of creation is a living prayer…

    • rebecca |

      Anne, thanks so much for your comment….it’s nice to know that someone who lives her spirituality in a way much different than mine was able to appreciate where I am coming from.

    • rebecca |

      To Michelle and Diana…two of my favorite Italy bloggers leaving me positive comments=a good day for me.

  2. Marybeth |

    You have such a way with words, it’s always a joy to read your posts. I am struck by the fact that many expats seem to enjoy living in Italy more than Italian natives do. My Italian friends (all over Italy) shake their heads when I say I want to live in Italy, because they have such a difficult time reconciling their country’s rich past with its present struggles, and what they see as a bleak future for their children. They love their country with a fierce passion, but they don’t seem to be able to enjoy it as outsiders do. They find life in Italy difficult, painful, limiting, and many of them would like to live elsewhere, but don’t have the resources, education or opportunity to do so. Expats, on the other hand, are finding a new joy by living in Italy. I can relate, as I feel the same way. But I sometimes wonder if I’m overlooking or discounting something very essential to the Italian way of life, and in doing so, not really understanding the true nature of Italy.

    • rebecca |

      Thanks so much, Marybeth, for your kind feedback and your thought provoking comments.

      Make no mistake, I often find life in Italy difficult, painful, limiting, and there are days I would like to live elsewhere. Running a business here can be a nightmare, the bureaucracy is maddening, the cost of living is ridiculous, and there is an every man for himself mentality often in the culture here which can be disheartening.

      So, why don’t I blog about that? Well, I do…but you have to look for it, as my self-defence mechanism tends to runs to sarcastic wit so I often joke rather than complain. Plus, venting generally makes me more stressed out, whereas reinforcing the positive keeps me from slittling my wrists.

      I think Italians often complain about Italy first because there is a long and proud tradition of complaining in Italian culture…and there is certainly much to complain about. Also, as the globe shrinks and Italians see the relative ease of navigating civic life in the US or even other EU countries they are more apt to make comparisons and expect the same from their own public administration–we are talking about a member of the G7!

      The question remains: why do expats tend to have these life epiphanies that escape the locals? Well, I’m not sure if it has to do so much with Italy per se or the simple fact that a big change like moving into a completely different culture lends itself to reflection–both inward and outward–whereas living your entire life in the comfort zone of your own language and culture often leads to passivity. And of course, the grass is always greener on the other side, so we tend to see all that is good and lovely in Italy and Italians often see all that is good and lovely in the US (or elsewhere) where there is a dark underbelly in both realities. Also, we know there is a backdoor if life here does, indeed, become too much of a hassle and we want to move back to the land of bagels and 24 hour grocery stores. Most Italians don’t have that door.

    • rebecca |

      Jennifer….idem. I am so glad, on my part, that I found your blog through Michelle, which I am enjoying immensely. Michelle is like the Yenta of the blogging world…good match!

  3. Jen of a2eatwrite |

    I found this post via Michelle – I am so with you on all of this. It’s something I’m trying to focus on each day and in the face of too many in my life who wear their religion on their sleeve.

    Beautiful writing.

    • rebecca |

      Thanks, Jen…I am finding through this post that the sticky spirituality question is something common to many, though so intimate that it doesn’t get brought up often.

  4. Marybeth |

    grazie mille for your thoughtful response. You’ve made many good points. I think it’s the idea of “no back door” that gets to me. My interest in living in Italy is to truly understand another language and culture, but I’m beginning to think that it’s likely to be an impossible task. My Italian friends have opened my eyes to the reality of how truly spoiled Americans are, myself included, by the wealth of choices that most of us have grown up with. We can’t escape our heritage, nor can they escape theirs, it seems. But at least we can strive to understand each other better, share each other’s wisdom, pain and joy, and be grateful for the process, which inevitably fosters transformation. And since it’s the beauty of Italy that draws most of us there in the first place, why not savor it? Ti ringrazio tanto for your eloquent insights into Italian life, and your willingness to share your experiences.

  5. Amy N |

    Perfectly, beautifully expressed. As someone who grew up in three different cultures, I totally agree with you that the only way to truly appreciate where you are is to have been somewhere else.

    • rebecca |

      @Amy..thanks for your feedback. I’ve noticed that this seems to be common thread that runs through the expat experience, regardless of where you’ve lived overseas.

  6. Sarah Weiner |

    Well said! I grew up with absolutely no religion. Just the awareness that we were Jewish and that was why my mother’s family came to the US from Austria in 1938. I’ve always found what I think others’ refer to as spirituality in the beauty of nature…and, well I guess anything else that I observe which affects me in some way. As some one who has always felt a bit naive regarding the need for organized worship, I really appreciate your take on it! Thank you.

  7. Joanna Hamil |

    The title caught my eye and your writing always draws me in. Lovely piece. Even the word “religion” has become an anethma to me these days, but you give it grace in this piece. Water! Water forever!


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