Wednesday, February 16, 2011


            Perhaps the hiatus in writing needs to be explained.  I have been considering, of late, what the term "leisure" means.  A friend, professional in the field, tells me that it is time spent doing things that are enjoyable and not compensated....I think that is what he says, anyway.  I should listen more carefully.  He owns a house in a village called Roccantica.  It is a few kilometers and about 50 years north of Rome.  You have guessed it: after returning from Istanbul to Italy, I made a bee line for this place as if to a refuge. 
That wasn't as easy as it sounds.  Metro to Tiburtina, wait for the train going to Orte, but get off at Poggio Mirteto.  Having watched the bus for Roccantica leave without me, I was that close, I took the next bus to Casperia and walked from there.  It is only 3 k. and really a nice walk...despite carrying my pack I felt light and easy.  A cop car passed me twice and on the third loop stopped to chat, friendly like.  The gist of it was, of course, who are you and why are you walking up a road in the middle of nowhere?  I told them and he said that he guessed I was a am I supposed to take that?  Anyway, at least I was assured that the village knew all too, which is always more convenient.

            I stayed four days...hiked in the mountains, hiked back to Casperia with an empty pack to fill with essentials such as laundry soap, bread, cheese, tomatoes, and wine.  I found a short cut on a tiny road that was otherwise occupied by a flock of sheep.  A nice gentleman assured me that the next cut off went straight for the town, visible over our heads.  It didn't, but I wasn't going back, so took the last few meters up through an olive orchard and a patch that looked way too much like poison ivy.  But it did cut off some distance and time, not that I was too bothered about either.

            That is the point...leisure, I think, means recreation.  That is re-creation.  It wasn't just that laundry had to be done in something other than a hotel sink and in something more than 3 minutes swashing in tepid water.  It was that I needed to get grounded.  All the beautiful things I'd seen, the interesting people I'd met, the challenges of language, travel, culture, even the prolonged solitude, well it takes a toll.  As it happens, I was there over a Sunday and got to go to mass for the first time in ages, it seems.  The priest is an African who works in the Vatican and comes up on week-ends and the people love him.  He talks to them, not at them.  He asks them questions during the homily and actually expects answers.  He is spontaneous.  I enjoyed it, though the message was not so easy: being a light of the world and the salt of the earth is hard work.  Once, years ago, I was about to leave for India for a month and a woman in the great parish of St. Mel's Geneseo, where I was finishing up a 4 week Advent Bible Study, suggested that I take the Eucharist with me.  "Why?" I had asked.  "Well, so that you can take Christ to India."  "You know, I think I will find him already there," I answered. I did, and I learned that Christ is everywhere, in everything.  I have learned that Christ is even in death and loss, and suffering--maybe especially there.  Christ in the Eucharist is extraordinary precisely because it is otherwise so utterly unextraordinary--the bread, that is.  It is so close to being nothing that it can become Everything.  It is holy because All is holy; if it isn't holy, then nothing is.  I have not missed Christ, but I have missed the Eucharist, if that makes sense.

            Roccantica is a good place to learn Italian, as pretty much no one speaks English.  Perhaps one of the best conversations I've had in days was in one of the two local restaurants where I was the only guest all night.  The waiter, a government worker in Rome when he is not helping out his girl friend here, and I ended up "closing" the place.  The problem began when I ran out of food, but still had wine.  So Roberto brought me more food.  Then he needed to eat, so he made himself a pizza and sat with me to eat it.  Then we sampled two kinds of Grappa (if you don't know, don't find out).  My Italian always gets better after a bit of wine...

            Roccantica is a good place to get some exercise, as there are hiking trails all over the mountains.  One leads to an ancient shrine, the grotto of St. Leonardo (untraceable in the hagiographies, except for a French version: a hermit who lived in the France).  I missed the right path but was set straight by a vigorous middle aged couple out for a Sunday hike.  They were excited to tell me that they'd hiked the American South West, though they couldn't remember the name of their favorite canyon.
Roccantica is a great place busy one's self so that one doesn't feel as though one is wasting time just in leisure--in recreation.  As if that is a waste.

            Ambrose--remember this is supposed to be about him, and not me?  Ambrose did rest.  He is connected with a small hermitage outside the walls of Milan, though it seems to have roots that pre-date him.  He went there as if on retreat.  That there isn't much more to be said about and that is as it should be: if he'd hiked and done laundry and practiced a 2nd language it wouldn't have been a retreat, would it?  The place is still there, set back in a nook in a suburban neighborhood well past the castle and Napoleonic Arch.  There is a community of Women Religious who keep the spirit of the place alive, but in another location, quite far from Milan.  I will get there one day.

            It took 3 days to get the work out of my system, the guilt for not working out of my system, the luxury of doing nothing work through my system, and finally to recognize that I'd been nibbling Lotus long enough.  I was recreated and ready to move on, though I wasn't sure to where...North, I decided, not Capua and not Serbia.  I went down to the bus stop at the foot of the town (which is still well above the indescribably beautiful valley below).  The bus was due at 8:30...

            A sweet woman named Maria Pia smiled warmly at me as she approached the stop.  This is not normal in my experience of Italy...strangers are very seldom greeted openly.  They don't even usually respond to a good ol' Iowa "howdy" (even when rendered in Italian).  She is a hard working woman who takes care of other people for a living.  No kidding, not even when she is not working does she let up.  She greeted every person out that a.m.  She adopted me and when the bus did come (8:40, for the record) she insisted that I sit with her, despite being 2 of 3 people on a 60 passenger bus.  She patted my knee and often didn't even need to speak.
            Which was good because she had that peculiarity of language I associate with not being particularly well educated, that is, she lops off the last syllable or two or three from her words.  Thus, I became "Rob'e" for "Roberto."  It was frustrating to consider that my Italian is as good as it is ever likely to be, not the least thanks to Roccantica, and here I am leaving the town and I cannot make out half of what she is talking about.  In any case, by the time we got to the train station she had adopted an elderly gentleman, a pregnant mother with a beautiful little boy, and an elegantly dressed woman all of whom seemed to know her.  We made for a merry party most of the way to the city.  When Maria Pia got off in a suburb, for work, the little community completely broke up.  Though we were all still sitting together it was as if the glue had come apart.  There is a woman who simply does not distinguish between what she does for a living and what she does with her free time.  She is effusive.  She was probably a bit of a character but so was Francis.  In any case she showed me the Message that life should be lived us being what we are, we just gotta be good at it, and that means getting better.  And that means pulling away for a bit so as to hear, to listen, and to decide how to respond.  Then it is time to go back at it. 
The bus to the metro to the train to Bologna...where Ambrose had discovered the relics of the martyrs Agricola and Vitalis.  With Petronius (a bishop after Ambrose's time) and Dominic (who is buried here) they are the patrons of Bologna.

            I don't know what Ambrose's personality was like. I don't imagine him to be warm and effusive.  Some have characterized him as aloof and calculating, manipulative, even.  I rather suspect that is, well, inaccurate.  He was cerebral and capable of long stretches of silent study.  But he was not, strictly speaking, an academic.  His works are of the moment and for the people right around him.  Even when his homilies were published they retrained the spontaneity and charm that he brought to the moment.  For example, in his homily about Agricola and Vitale he meant to mention his sponsor's name "Juliana" but slipped and said "Judea" instead.  He used this mistake to spin spontaneously on the idea that Judea is our true home.  And the whole little episode went into the permanent record.

            So, he was smart, very well educated, articulate, spontaneous, extraordinarily hard working, funny, self depreciating, and obviously zealous, if that isn't a dirty word these days.  He was also almost always surrounded by his intimate friends.  His brother, till he died, his sister, till HE died, other friends and associates.  Augustine's conversion took place at some sort of summer home where Ambrose was staying, but obviously with lots of company about as well.  Famously, it was here that Augustine "caught" Ambrose reading a book without moving his lips: it was strange enough a thing to be remembered years later and commented on.  For Ambrose, recreation, retreat, leisure, seems to have not been to the exclusion of the important relationships in his life or even the important tasks to be done.  He was, I think, the same person doing much the same things in his down time as he did when completely engaged in pastoral duties.  I doubt he would have understood any such tidy distinction. 

            Leisure, in the ancient world, meant that one did not have to work in order to eat.  Leisure was THE sign of "arête" or excellence: to be able to dedicate one's life, not to a profession or occupation, but to the contemplation of the divine: beauty, truth, and the good.  This did not mean that the Elites (for who else could afford to be so 'fully human'?) were all lazy, fat, and bored--look at Cicero, Ambrose's model in so many respects.  The whole idea of arête seems to be a challenge to just those elites to live more full and rich and interior lives while also at the same time, to be dedicated to the (uncompensated) service of the 'patria,' the idea of Rome.  Ambrose was just that sort of person, whose Idea of Rome was fused o his idea of Church.  Because he didn't have a "job" he was able to have a "vocation."  In this conception Leisure and Labor are melded.

            Now, time to explore Bologna...home of Agricola and Vitalis.

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