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