October 10, 2019


October isn’t just a month, it’s a feeling. It’s a state of mind and a celebration of everyday beauty. In fact, there’s no better month of the year than October to enjoy the splendors of nature, with the leaves turning colors into beautiful shades of red, gold and orange, whether you head off for a proper weekend vacation to get the full effect of the Fall foliage or you’re driving home down a street lined with trees that are all turned into different colors—a very good reminder of just how beautiful nature can be after a long hot summer of plain green everywhere.

Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery was so right when she proclaimed her love for this wonderful month. “October was a beautiful month at Green Gables,” she wrote in her famous novel Anne of Green Gables, ”when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths. Anne reveled in the world of color about her. ‘Oh, Marilla,’ she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, ‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill—several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.’”

At the same time, however, this month is somehow a messenger of death—though one wrapped in the colors of nostalgic happiness—and rebirth. In truth, it happens that before the first November frosts start, October admonishes us on the necessity of taking up the incoming challenge of winter, the most Yin of the seasons, according to the Taoist school of thought. As a matter of fact, in winter, when the earth lies dormant and nature appears frozen and dead, we’re called to look into our depths, to reconnect to our inner being, to befriend the darkness within us and around us. This means, interiorly speaking, that while winter is at the same time the season of rest and reflection and the most challenging time of the year, autumn in general and October, in particular, is the time of the year when something old ends—in a blaze of glory—and something new is brewing and about to begin. In other words, it’s true that, as Robert Frost puts it, nothing, especially that which is perfect and beautiful, can last forever:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Still, for every death there is a birth, for every ending there is a new beginning. “Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.” (Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte)

September 30, 2019

Oh Shenandoah

Charles DeasThe Trapper and his Family (1845) depicts a voyageur and his Native American wife and children
It has fairly been said that songs are the language of the heart, and speak the sentiments of the soul, in familiar verse. It can also be said that folk songs, for their part, are the soul of folk literature and folk culture, they are the expression in the idiom of the people of their joys and sorrows, their patriotism, their zest for life, and the simple pleasures of a country life. Perhaps even more so, folk songs can often show a part of a country usually unnoticed, ignored or hidden by official representations and day-to-day activity. They are “the true classics of the people, and form the foundation on which a national love of music can be built up,” as the British Board of Education put it in their “Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers” (1923).

All the above may serve as introduction to the subject of this post, namely a traditional American folk song known as “Oh Shenandoah,” also called simply “Shenandoah” or “Across the Wide Missouri.” Like many Europeans of my generation, I first came across this song thanks to the soundtrack of the 1965 Civil War movie, Shenandoah, starring Jimmy Stewart, one of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time. I saw the movie back in the 80s and enjoyed it a lot, including, but not especially, the soundtrack. Later on, I heard some good renditions of the song—including those of Tom Waits & Keith Richards, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Emmylou Harris. But what made me truly fall in love with the song was Bruce Springsteen’s stunning version of “Shenandoah,” to whose rolling cadences he did full justice on his 2006 Seeger Sessions album.

What this song is all about? As the Library of Congress’s Song of America Project puts it, the origins of “Shenandoah” are not so easily deciphered:

Like many folksongs, it is impossible to determine exactly when the song was composed, yet it probably did not originate later than the Civil War. In any case, by the nineteenth century, “Shenandoah” had achieved widespread popularity, both on land and at sea.

American folklorist Alan Lomax suggested that “Shenandoah” was a sea-shanty and that the “composers” quite possibly were French-Canadian voyageurs. Sea shanties were work songs used by sailors to coordinate the efforts of completing chores such as raising the ship’s anchor or hauling ropes. The formal structure of a shanty is simple: it consists of a solo lead that alternates with a boisterous chorus. With the sweeping melodic line of its familiar refrain, “Shenandoah” is the very nature of a sea shanty; indeed, the song’s first appearance in print was in an article by William L. Alden, titled “Sailor Songs,” that was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1882).

As unclear as is the song’s origin, so is the definitive interpretation of its text. Some believe that the song refers to the river of the same name. Others suggest that it is of Native American origin, for it tells the tale of Sally, the daughter of the Indian Chief Shenandoah, who is courted for seven years by a white Missouri river trader. Regardless of these textual discrepancies, “Shenandoah” remains an American classic.

As an example of the difficulties in interpretation of the text, in one version of the song’s lyrics—there are several—we read “Oh, Shenandoah, I long to hear you,” which could refer to the sound of a running river, but could also mean a woman’s voice; another version says, “Oh Shenandoah, I hear you calling.” Maybe, as a music blogger fairly noted, the love affair between the fur trader and the Indian maiden gradually morphed into a longing for a river and its valley…

As David Cheal insightfully noted in an October 9, 2017, Financial Times article, the song is

a sea shanty, a logging song, a fur traders’ ballad. It’s pronounced “Shanandore”. Actually, that should be “Shenan-doh-ah”. It’s about a fur trapper who falls in love with a Native American chief’s daughter. It’s about the wide Missouri river. In fact, it’s called “Across the Wide Missouri”. Actually, it’s not about the Missouri at all — it’s about “This world of misery”. “Shenandoah” is all of these things, and none of them. It’s an enigma, inside a mystery, wrapped in a gorgeous melody. Generations of schoolchildren in the US and elsewhere have grown up singing it, and some of the world’s great popular singers have been drawn to it.
Most of all, however, as John and Alan Lomax pointed out in their book Best Loved American Folk Songs, what makes the beauty and appeal of the song is the fact that

[t]he melody has the roll and surge and freedom of a tall ship sweeping along before a trade wind. The sonorous succession of long vowels and soft and liquid consonants blend perfectly with the romantic air. The lines are a call from the homeland to the sailor wandering far out across the seas, a call not from a sweetheart, a house, or even a town, but from the land itself, its rivers and its familiar and loved hills.

As for the lyrics, I’d say that it’s not so much about their literal meaning—or lack of it—as it is about the nostalgia and the sense of loss they convey to us. Maybe such a poignant feeling is the key to penetrating the mystery of this song. After all, to compose a song or a symphony, as well as to write a novel or a poem is to inhabit a dream, a dream that sometimes takes place in its very own dreamscape, even more so when it comes to traditional folk songs, myths, legends, and fairy tales. Actually, dreams matter, myths matter. We in modern Western societies think that “myth” and “legend” are practically synonyms for “untrue.” But there is a more profound sense in which myths, legends, and even dreams can be very true. Quite often, myths and legends, along with folk tales and traditional folk songs, express not only our most intimate feelings and longings but also our innermost sense of reality, the sense of nostalgia for what was and what could have been, if not our hope that someday, somehow, we will reach our Promised Land. Humans need myths because they need dreams. That’s also why “Oh Shenandoah” matters.

Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away, I'm bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I love your daughter,
Away, you rolling river.
For her I'd cross
Your roaming waters,
Away, I'm bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
'Tis seven years
since last I've seen you,
Away, you rolling river.
'Tis seven years
since last I've seen you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Away, we're bound away
'Cross the wide Missouri.
Oh Shenandoah,
I long to hear you,
Far away, you rolling river.
Oh Shenandoah,
Just to be near you,
Far away, far away.
'Cross the wide Missouri.

September 7, 2019

A Kiss Is just a Kiss

This morning, as sometimes happens to all of us, I woke up with a song playing in my head, the typical case in which you ask yourself, “Why the hell is this song playing in my ears? Why now? And why this one specifically?” The song—an old and very famous one—speaks about the time going by “no matter what the future brings” and a kiss which is just a kiss, a sigh which is just a sigh… After asking myself those questions for a while, the mystery was somewhat cleared up. In fact, unusually, I was able to recall the dream I had just before waking up. A strange dream—but then which one isn’t? And stranger still, I could recall it! What was it about? Well, the dream’s background was a love affair—a very complicated one for a variety of reasons—I had in a previous life. She was my angel, my inspiration… I loved her and I knew she loved me back. But what we both wanted and hoped for never happened. How much I just wanted to take her in my arms! How much I wanted to kiss her! But I never did. Okay, that’s the dream’s background, but what did exactly happen in the dream? Well, besides a few irrelevant details, we… finally kissed! And that was wonderful. So wonderful that I didn’t pay attention to the fact that she had a light cold! I mean, maybe not the best of the best, but memorable nonetheless. After all, perfection is not of this world, and there is always room for further improvement. Maybe in the next life.

You must remember this / A kiss is just a kiss / A sigh is just a sigh / The fundamental things apply / As time goes by / And when two lovers woo / They still say “I love you” / On that you can rely / No matter what the future brings / As time goes by [...]

“As Time Goes by” by Herman Hupfeld (1931).
(The song became most famous in 1942
when part of it was sung by the character Sam
in the movie Casablanca).

August 17, 2019

R.I.P. Peter Fonda

If I hadn’t read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—among many other novels set in the U.S.—and seen Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider, I probably wouldn’t have undertaken my pilgrimage to America in my early thirties and wouldn’t have fallen in love with her… I mean the real America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” not the country narrated by both Jack and Peter. You know, they call it heterogony of ends: while consciously pursuing your particular ends, you have unconsciously served wider ends, or if you prefer, I was like Columbus, who thinking he was going to China discovered a new world. Therefore, willing or unwilling, I owe them both a debt of gratitude. Kerouac died in 1969, the same year as Woodstock (!) and that Easy Rider came out. Maybe a coincidence, maybe not. And yesterday, exactly 50 years later, he died at the age of 79.

What about the movie? Well, since I’m not particularly adept at talking about films with the minimum competency requirements, it is my pleasure to give the floor to someone who knows more than I do. This is how Mark Bannerman concluded his article on ABC News (August 17, 2019):

Some 50 years on, there are those that see it as a curious film; a kind of period piece. For others it's the story that matters, a story that has crucial relevance today. Forget the bikes and the hippies and see it instead as an allegory of America. Two guys doing a questionable business deal, using it to fund their search for experience and meaning only to find the deal they did took them on a road leading nowhere.
In so many ways it challenges everything that America rests on.
Towards the end of the film Peter Fonda's character looks back on their journey and says simply: “We blew it.”
Asked about this just before his death, the actor said the line of script was intended for all generations, then added this pointed comment.
“Go look out the window and tell me we haven't blown it.”
Not my cup of tea, to be honest. But no hard feelings on my part. May the ground be light to you, Peter.

May 15, 2019

About Being Right or Wrong

It is nobler to declare oneself wrong than to insist on being right—especially when one is right.

~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

To put it with tongue in cheek, we might say that Nietzsche is definitely right. But to be honest we should admit that the sentence would be even more right—though much less intriguing and thought-provoking—if it sounded like this instead: “It is nobler to declare oneself wrong than to insist on being right—especially when one is wrong.” Let’s just think this through for a minute. How many of us suffer from an inflated sense of infallibility? And how few are those who are not afraid to admit their wrongdoing? The truth is that it takes tremendous fortitude to utter the words, “I was wrong and you were right.” The general rule is that people have not such strength of heart and soul. I was no exception to this rule until I was rudely awakened by the reality of my own weakness and fallibility. It was at that very moment, however, that my inner nobility triumphed over my inner demons and inadequacies. It was as if I had finally reached my promised land, though with a bitter taste in my mouth. I was free, at last, but we all know that freedom, in every sense of the word, is not free nor a birthright, but won at a great price.

April 28, 2019

Why I Won't Delete My Social Media Accounts

A couple of days ago a good Facebook friend of mine asked me my thoughts on a couple of interviews released by Jaron Lanier. An American computer scientist who is considered by many to be one of the central figures in the history of immersive virtual reality, Lanier has now ascended to guru status in tech circles, issuing warnings about a digital world he helped make. In the interviews, like in his latest book—Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018)—he talks about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and how the tech and social media giants are using algorithms to record data about their users and to shape how we see the world and what we’re shown online. In particular, he contends that sites like Facebook and Twitter are dopamine farms that are reprogramming how you think and feel. He says they’re also causing political instability, and are changing the global economy for the worse.

At first, I thought I could write down a quick reply in the comment section, but then again I thought that the matter is too serious to be taken lightly, I mean I didn’t want to get off lightly. Therefore I realized it was worth writing a blog post at least. And here I am. Let me first say that I’m no expert on the subject here, even though last year, intrigued by a couple of reviews, I had a quick read of the above-mentioned book. (I also had the opportunity to read something about James Williams, yet another guru of computer science, a former Google product strategist who became a philosopher at the University of Oxford and whose research addresses the philosophy and ethics of attention and persuasion—in harsh opposition to the giant of the I-tech and on the same wavelength with Lanier, he argues that digital technologies privilege our impulses over our intentions, and are gradually diminishing our ability to engage with the issues we most care about.)

But let’s now get into some of the most fundamental and relevant concepts of Lanier’s thought. Take for instance the well-known concept of random reinforcement—addiction fed not by reward but by never knowing whether or when the reward will come. Well, Lanier puts it like this:

When the algorithm is feeding experiences to a person, it turns out that the randomness that lubricates algorithmic adaptation can also feed human addiction. The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments; it’s a cat-and-mouse game based on pure math. Because the stimuli from the algorithm don’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process—of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage—is addiction. As the algorithm tries to escape a rut, the human mind becomes stuck in one.

Roughly speaking, the reasons for freeing ourselves from social media include their tendency to trick us with illusions of popularity and success, to spend too much time isolating ourselves and disconnecting from the real world in order to maintain the perception of being connected, to twist our relationship with the truth, to rob us of our free will with relentless targeted ads, and to make politics terrifying. In other words, they bring out the worst in us. More specifically, here are “the ten arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now” (and the titles of the chapters of the book) in a nutshell:

1. You are losing your free will. Social media has become a space where everyone is posting for likes and comments…
  • Sean Parker, first president of Facebook: “We need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever....It’s a social-validation feedback loop... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology....The inventors, creators -- it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people -- understood this consciously. And we did it anyway...it literally changes your relationship with society, with each other...It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
  • Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of user growth at Facebook: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.... No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem -- this is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem... I feel tremendous guilt. I think we all knew in the back of our minds—even though we feigned this whole line of, like, there probably aren’t any bad unintended consequences. I think in the back, deep, deep recesses of, we kind of knew something bad could happen...So we are in a really bad state of affairs right now, in my opinion. It is eroding the core foundation of how people behave by and between each other. And I don’t have a good solution. My solution is I just don’t use these tools anymore. I haven’t for years.”

2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times. In this chapter, Lanier introduces an acronym under which all social media’s ills can be umbrellaed: “BUMMER” or “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” The Bummer machine is made up of six parts, indexed by the following mnemonic: A for Attention Acquisition leading to Asshole supremacy; B for Butting into everyone’s lives; C for Cramming content down people’s throats; D for Directing people’s behaviours in the sneakiest way possible; E for Earning money from letting the worst assholes secretly screw with everyone else; and F for Fake mobs and Faker society.
3. Social media is making you into an asshole. Meeting your inner troll, etc. This might be one of the most compelling reasons for either quitting or never joining social media.
4. Social media is undermining truth. Myths and lies spread across the internet like wildfire…
5. Social media is making what you say meaningless. Because it strips it of context.
6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy. “If you don’t see the dark ads, the ambient whispers, the cold-hearted memes and the ridicule-filled customized feed that someone else sees, that person will just seem crazy to you. And that is our new Bummer world. We seem crazy to each other because Bummer is robbing us of our theories of one another’s minds.” Hence the explosion of nastiness, a great blossoming of “assholes.”
7. Social media is making you unhappy. The author states that due to targeted advertisements, if you look up something unhappy you will start seeing ads similar to that search and will create an even greater sense of sadness…
8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity. The reason BUMMER is a huge issue is because the internet is free. Lanier thinks that if each user pays a small fee, advertisers will not be targeting audiences and people can live in greater harmony online…
9. Social media is making politics impossible. “There are so few independent news sites, and they’re precious … Our huge nation is only a few organizations away from having no independent newsrooms with resources and clout.“ But above all, BUMMER may have no party affiliation but, as stated before, is pro-asshole.
10. Social media hates your soul. A couple of quotes:
  • “Usually Google has had a way of coming up with the creepier statements, but Facebook has pulled ahead: A recent revision in its statement of purpose includes directives like assuring that ‘every single person has a sense of purpose and community’. A single company is going to see to it that every single person has a purpose, because it presumes that was lacking before. If that is not a new religion, I don’t know what is.”
  • “When you use BUMMER, you implicitly accept a new spiritual framework. It is like the EULA agreement—the user agreement—that you clicked “OK” on without reading. You have agreed to change something intimate about your relationship with your soul. If you use BUMMER, you have probably, to some degree, statistically speaking, effectively renounced what you might think is your religion, even if that religion is atheism. You have been inducted into a new spiritual framework.”

What shall I say about this book? Well, if I’m being honest, ever since I read Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now the first definition that comes to my mind when I think of Lanier is exaggerated. Don’t get me wrong, I think the book is interesting and thought-provoking. Maybe nothing really new—these or similar ideas have been debated for some years now—but a good summary and exploration of the big personal and broader societal problems associated with social media. Despite his critical approach to the whole social media thing, however, Lanier has not lost hope. Speaking in general terms, that is, without specific reference to social networks, he thinks that “we can definitely make better interaction devices than we have.” As he told Wired in 2017, “there are lots of displays and sensors yet to be built. There’s so much to improve. But I love that. […] We’re in a perilous time. But I really believe in the human capacity for increased creativity and intelligence and wisdom, and I think if we present the tech in such a way that people have an ability to really see it and master it, they’ll rise to the occasion.”

As for social networks, he argues that If users rebel, Facebook, Twitter, etc. have an incentive to change for the better. “Whoever you are,” he explains in the book, “I hope you have options to explore what your life might be, especially if you are young. You need to make sure your own brain, and your own life, isn’t in a rut. Maybe you can go explore wilderness or learn a new skill. Take risks. But whatever form your self-exploration takes, do at least one thing: detach from the behavior-modification empires for a while—six months, say? Note that I didn’t name this book Arguments for Deleting Your Social media Accounts Right Now and Keeping Them Deleted Forever. After you experiment, you’ll know yourself better. Then decide.”

Put down this way, it would seem a rather moderate and balanced approach. But this is only one side of the story. The other is the depiction of a dark future and an even worse future based on the systematic amplification and exaggeration of issues that are real but not that dramatic. To say nothing about the contradiction in which the author finds himself: he explains how social media is making America tribal, but at the same time he goes out of his way to add extraneous content attacking Republicans. He attacks president Trump for his alleged addiction to tweeting, while ignoring those who gang up on him using bot networks and troll factories. Unfortunately, the obsession with politics turns an otherwise interesting book into a partisan attack. He starts his book nicely—with a metaphor comparing cats and dogs to social media users to show a divide between those who use social media and those who don’t—and he ends up just another unashamedly biased political commentator.

In any case, if we were to follow what seems to be the logic of his reasoning, we should also stop reading books and newspapers, watching television, using email, etc. In reality, every progress brings with it negative side effects, new challenges but also new opportunities. Every innovation carries both advantages and unpredictability, both desired and unintended collateral effects. Social media is just a tool, and like most tools, it can be used well or horribly or anywhere in between. It is not social media that “makes politics impossible,” nor is it politics that makes social media awful. Both social media and politics are tools. Paraphrasing the NRA saying (“It’s not guns that kill people it’s people that kill people”), it’s not social media that makes people into assh*les, it’s assh*les that make social media a sh*tty place.

March 31, 2019

Everything Rare for the Rare

One must renounce the bad taste of wishing to agree with many people. […] In the end, things must be as they are and have always been—the great things remain for the great, the abysses for the profound, the delicacies and thrills for the refined, and, to sum up shortly, everything rare for the rare.

~ Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

As everyone knows, Friedrich Nietzsche wasn’t the most humble man on earth, nor was he a prophet of democracy and an advocate of the principle of equality of all men and universal brotherhood. That is also why the above-quoted fragment from his 1886 Beyond Good and Evil should not come as any surprise to anyone.

On no account, however, should the quote lead us to conclude that there is no truth in those rather dismissive words. In fact, upon closer inspection, such brutal honesty is widely justified by the differences among human beings. To put it simply (and to make it more simple than it actually is), being equal before the law with equal rights for all doesn’t mean being the same. Analogously, equality in the sight of God does not imply that there should be no distinction on the basis of skill and qualities or on any other basis. Actually, the real implication of equality, from both a political and, at least to some extent, a religious point of view, is the equality of opportunity. That’s why the differences between individuals cannot be ignored and/or denied in the name of and on behalf of the principle of equality. Therefore, in the light of the above, Nietzsche’s words are far less controversial than what they may seem at first glance.

But let’s now focus on some concrete situations to which Nietzsche’s statement may apply. Take, for instance, the case of two persons in love or in a relationship of some sort. One enjoys the company of open-minded, intellectually refined and stimulating friends, the other usually feels comfortable with Manichean and intellectually crude people. Or take a guy who thinks big and one who only cares about little things—well, how hard could it be for them to get along with each other and, what is more, to deeply and completely appreciate each other? Unfortunately, in both cases, there are people with different priorities, mindsets, and perspectives. Or take the case of a couple in which one is a profound guy, while the other is a nice but rather superficial person. How could they love each other for a long time, if not until death and beyond?

In reality, the possible combinations of sensitivities, characters, expectations, priorities, individual stories, etc. are nearly infinite. There’s no way to predict whether a friendship can survive whatever difference of opinion, taste, mindset, worldview, etc., or whether two lovers can really take their relationship to the highest level notwithstanding (or maybe because of) their differences.

Despite what Nietzsche seems to think, however, Love—in all of its many forms—will always have the final say. Omnia vincit Amor.

January 16, 2019

Love Is the Key

To love another is something
like prayer and it can’t be planned, you just fall
into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.

~ Anne Sexton, “Admonitions to a Special Person” (1974), from Last Poems

Not so long ago, a couple of years back on a typical gloomy Milan day, I had a pretty interesting talk with a Benedictine monk—an old friend and a very inspiring man—on the nature and practice of prayer.

A scholar of both Western and Eastern philosophies, religions and meditative practices, he explained me that prayer, in order to be genuine and of any real value, must fulfill three conditions: Beauty, Goodness, and Love. Beauty is what the apostle calls (1 Peter 3:3-4) a gentle and quiet spirit: “It is not fancy hair, gold jewelry, or fine clothes that should make you beautiful. No, your beauty should come from within you—the beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. This beauty will never disappear, and it is worth very much to God.”

Goodness is virtue and holiness in action. In Paul’s words (Galatians 5:22-23) is a “fruit of the Spirit”—“fruit,” here, means “beneficial results,” the good things that come from the Spirit’s indwelling. In other words, goodness is a moral characteristic of a Spirit-filled person.

The first in Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit is Love. “Prayer does not depend upon words,” my Benedictine friend said, “love is the foundation of all prayer because God Himself is love.”

Beauty, Goodness, and above all, LOVE—these are what prayer is all about. Selfless prayers, filled with compassion for all creation, are beautiful and enlightening. They are made out of the essence itself of Beauty. But, as we learn from Plato’s Symposium, Beauty is the object of every Love’s yearning, and a life gazing upon and pursuing this Beauty is the best life one can lead...

The memory of that conversation, or, still better, of the theology lesson I received from the monk, came back to my mind a few days ago when I stumbled across the above-quoted verses from Anne Sexton’s beautiful poem entitled “Admonitions to a Special Person.”

The poet’s comparison between love and prayer is not only evocative and even moving in an understated way, but also philosophically and theologically correct. The same, to some extent, goes for the “falling into the arms” of prayer because of the victory of belief over disbelief.

As far as I can tell, the idea of love/prayer embraced by the poet includes—or should include—love in all its declensions, from profane love to sacred, from erotic/carnal love to spiritual/esoteric love, from love for other human beings to love for things and places. Of course, there is something Dantesque about this, something reminiscent of “the love that moves the sun and the other stars,” as Dante put it to define God in the last verse of the Divine Comedy. The stars, the planets, the universe as a whole are not governed by a blind force. In all and above all there is the Spirit of God.

December 14, 2018

Tempus Fugit

Sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus.

(Fast flies meanwhile the irreparable hour)

~ Vergil, Georgicon,  Book 3

We should cherish the moments we have with the ones we love. Our time upon this earth is not infinite, neither is it actually that long, and we know we are almost always blind to how fast time goes by. In this regard, it is true that speech is silver and silence is golden, but I think that the right words at the right moment matter, and always will.

Therefore my philosophy on this matter can be summarized as follows:
  1. Never pass up the occasion to tell someone how much they mean to you.
  2. Never miss an opportunity to say something kind to someone you love.
  3. Never waste a chance to say “I love you” to someone you really love, because in the blink of an eye, everything can change, and you may never know when you may not have that chance again.

But none of this would be possible without one basic prerequisite, which is also an effective way to describe what love is all about: the courage of one’s tenderness. It’s D. H. Lawrence’s definition of love as “having the courage of your tenderness.” Love invites one to have the courage to show oneself as one is, including one’s own tenderness and fragility. Therefore, the list should be recompiled as follows:
  1. Never be afraid to show your feelings.
  2. Never pass up the occasion to tell someone how much they mean to you.
  3. Never miss an opportunity to say something kind to someone you love.
  4. Never waste a chance to say “I love you” to someone you really love, because in the blink of an eye, everything can change, and you may never know when you may not have that chance again.

August 28, 2018


They say integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching, even when it may work to your disadvantage, and this obviously because wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing it, and right is right, even if no one is doing it. This simply means that integrity—besides being the moral excellence that the modern world most needs—is a very difficult virtue to practice. It has way more false fans than true ones, and more true enemies than real friends. Personal integrity requires that the person invariably act in accordance with his values. Of course, this is clearly an ideal standard rather than an achievable state. Sometimes having personal integrity means you will taste failure temporarily. As Winston Churchill once said, “Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.” In other words, integrity is a continuous challenge and a never-ending struggle against ourselves and the world around us.

Actually, as Job rhetorically once asked (Job 7:1), Nonne militia est vita hominis super terram? (“Isn’t man’s life upon the earth a military campaign?”). Or, as Seneca put it (Epistle 96 to Lucilius), Vivere militare est (“To live is to fight”). Maybe, in a time when peace is often confused with passivity—and war is almost always associated only and exclusively with death, terror, cruelty, and destruction—I guess we’d better rethink this whole matter and to rediscover the positive aspects of the concepts of fight, struggle and war. After all, there are unjust wars, but also just wars, there are bad fights and good fights… Let’s not forget Paul’s words (2 Timothy 4:6-8):
For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure is come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved his appearing.

July 18, 2018

Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil

And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil
By telling truth: tell truth and shame the devil.
If thou have power to raise him, bring him hither,
And I'll be sworn I have power to shame him hence.
O, while you live, tell truth and shame the devil!

~ William Shakespeare, King Henry IV,  Part 1

Have you ever experienced the power of telling the truth? Well, the fact is that, nowadays, no one expects you to speak the truth, they simply think that you are part of the “Big Lie” that underlies the Western culture on so many levels, but when you speak the plain truth out loud the energy that carries your spoken words to the ears of a listener is of a particular vibration, or frequency. This is the frequency of truth, and the universe is behind you. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness” (Harvard Divinity Address). Of course, sometimes you need to tell a little white lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, or, say, to get yourself the timeout you need…, but speaking the truth should be something like a minimum requirement of decency, which should be inculcated from the childhood. Obviously, reality is different, and when you speak the truth you must expect the worst and assume that it will happen. Yet, nothing will be the same afterwards. As if a curtain had fallen. As in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

July 16, 2018

Prepare to Submerge Yourself in Silence

Someone—maybe from an atheistic point of view—once said, “Faith isn’t a virtue, it’s the glorification of voluntary ignorance.” Well, no truer words were ever written or spoken. Read this St. Ephrem the Syrian’s sermon on Faith if you don’t believe that’s the case—and prepare to submerge yourself in Silence…

The sea is mighty. If you want to fathom it, you will be overwhelmed by the force of its waves. One wave can sweep you away and dash you against a cliff. Suffice it, oh feeble being, to be able to trade in a boat. Faith is better for you than a boat on the sea. The boat, in fact, is guided by a rudder, but the tide can sink it. Your faith cannot sink, if your will does not wish it so. How desirable for the sailor to be able to manage the sea as he likes! He thinks in one way; the sea acts in another manner. Only Our Lord held sway over the sea, so that it became silent and stopped raging.
He also gave you the power to dominate a sea and calm it. Mightier than the sea is arguing and disputing is more violent than the waves. If the wind of inquiry rages in your mind, reprimand it and calm its billows! The storm tosses the sea about; your quibbles perturb your mind. Our Lord issues an order, the wind dies down and the boat slips peacefully through the sea. Control and bridle inquiry and your faith will be at peace!
The creatures, whose use you know, should convince you of that. For instance, you are unable to relinquish a drink, even if you collapse at the spring. Having drunk from springs you do not surely think you have taken them all in. You also fail before the sun and yet you are not deprived of its light. By the fact that it comes down to you (with its rays), you do not desire to reach its height. Although the air is quite extensive for you, a little bit of it provides you with life. Although it is your pledge, you ignore how great its mass is.
You receive from creatures their limited help and service and leave their vast unknown treasures in the chest. Do not disdain what is less nor long for that which is more. Let these creatures of the Creator instruct you about the Creator Himself: you should boldly ask His help and shy away from sophistry about Him. Accept the life of divine Majesty, but do not probe it! Love the Father’s goodness, but do not scrutinize His essence! Yearn after and love the Son’s blessedness, but do not inquire about his eternal birth! Long for the presence of the Holy Spirit, but do not try to fathom Him! The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are registered by their names. Ponder their names and do not mull over their content! If you want to scrutinize their essence, you are lost; if you believe in the name, you are safe. Let the Father’s name be a limit for you; do not surpass it trying to plumb His nature! Let the Son’s name be a wall for you; do not try to scale it to scrutinize His generation! Let the Holy Spirit’s name be for you a hedge; do not enter in order to understand! These names will be a limit for you and with them stop every investigation. You have heard the names and their reality. Turn to the commandments! You have perceived the laws and the commandments. Turn now to your way of living! You have accomplished it perfectly, then turn to the promises! Do not neglect the commandments to apply yourself to what is not prescribed! You have heard the truth in manifested realities, do not go astray in the case of hidden things! Truth is proclaimed in few words, do not search it with lengthy probes! Save your effort by being silent, O frail being!

June 1, 2018

Under the Linden Tree

Have you ever enjoyed the smell of linden trees in late spring to early summer? Sweet, heady, totally overwhelming with their aroma, in the Northeast of Italy these majestic trees—also known as lime trees (though with no connection to the fruit) or basswoods—usually blossom between the end of May and the beginning of June. Every time it’s the same wonderful olfactive experience. Only God knows how much I love this time of the year! The scent is so strong that you can smell it hundreds of yards away—actually, the odor is more pronounced further from the source! As soon as you get out or open the windows to let in the light of the day or the cool air of the night, the gentle and pervasive smell of linden trees spreads everywhere and reigns supreme. It’s something magical, it’s a kind of urban miracle that transforms the town into a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a fairy-tale.

Walther von der Vogelweide
Not for nothing in China, the linden is named the tree of forgetfulness because its energy is soft, gentle and it offers the sensation of warmth and peace. It’s also interesting that in the Hellenic period of Egypt, the masks of the sarcophagus of Fayoum were made of linden wood—which proves the sacred nature of this tree since ancient times—and that in the mythology of Ancient Rome, it was a symbol of marital love and fidelity in the couple. In turn, in Slavic mythology the linden was considered a sacred tree—in Polish folklore, the belief still exists that the linden tree planted in front of a house protects the family from the evil spirits…—while the Germans considered it as a sacred tree of the lovers because it had the capacity to give fertility and prosperity.

The linden tree also appears as a romantic symbol in medieval poetry. For example, there is a medieval love poem called Unter der Linden (“Under the Lime Tree”), which is one of Walther von der Vogelweide’s best-known pieces. In it, a naïve, common-class girl rejoices in her love experience under the linden tree, the crushed flowers still showing the place where the couple had lain. I’m quoting it because I think this is an appropriate way to celebrate the linden tree.

1. Under the lime tree
On the heather,
Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Lovely together,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.

2. I came to meet him
At the green:
There was my truelove come before.
Such was I greeted —
Heaven's Queen! —
That I am glad for evermore.
Had he kisses? A thousand some:
See how red my mouth's become.

3. There he had fashioned
For luxury
A bed from every kind of flower.
It sets to laughing
Whoever comes upon that bower;
By the roses well one may,
Mark the spot my head once lay.

4. If any knew
He lay with me
(May God forbid!), for shame I'd die.
What did he do?
May none but he
Ever be sure of that — and I,
And one extremely tiny bird,
Who will, I think, not say a word.

[Modern English translation by Raymond Oliver]

May 3, 2018

Do not Cast Your Pearls Before Swine

Rudeness is a contagious behavior that spreads rapidly, and, as we all know, is rampant everywhere nowadays. Edmund Burke once said that, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” Perhaps this suggests that, given the widespread diffusion of such contagious behaviors, weak people are the majority of humans. Be that as it may, however, well-mannered and kind people are becoming increasingly rare. At the same time, it must be said that, often, the ruder they are, the more demanding of other people’s time and attention they are. Clearly, they take too much for granted.

Fortunately, though, there are many antidotes to rudeness and oafish behavior, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that I know some of them very well. One, and perhaps the most effective, is minimizing the contact opportunities with rude people. You have certainly heard the expression, “Do not cast your pearls before swine,” which is part of a famous Gospel passage (Matthew 7:6): “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before the swine, lest haply they trample them under their feet, and turn and rend you.” (For a correct understanding of the metaphor, please note that the Jewish law regarded swine and wild dogs as unclean and unfit for close human contact, very likely because they were dirty, unkempt, lice-infested, and prone to attack or cause trouble).

Well, that’s not only a great Gospel passage, but also an inspirational piece of advice for everyday life. In fact, one of the possible meanings—in a lay sense—of the metaphor could be that we should not waste our time and energy on people who rebuff the rules of well-mannered behavior and live by the rules of the worst selfishness, self-aggrandizement, and callous disregard of others, including the manipulative use of others for one’s own ends. Of course, the Gospel doesn’t say that we have to despise the “dogs” and “swine”—those who don’t recognize something “holy” for what it is, and people who don’t show discretion, appreciation, or discernment—of the metaphor, and even less that we can treat them like garbage. Similarly, we must be patient and open-minded towards other people’s feelings and opinions, but at the same time, we must be firm on principles: all emotions are acceptable, not all behaviors are. Not everything is justifiable. This means that we have the right and duty to sanction bad conduct when it occurs. The above-mentioned sanction makes it so that we give the right message while protecting ourselves from an over-exposure to other people’s bad energy, so to speak. This is essentially a question of both ecology of mind and justice, inextricably intertwined with each other.

Of course, there are a lot of other “corrective actions,” but most of them seem to me to be either too extreme or too watered down, and far less effective than that above mentioned.

April 3, 2018

Out Beyond Ideas of Wrongdoing and Rightdoing

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

The above quoted verse is from a Rumi’s poem called “A Great Wagon”—here in the translation by Coleman Barks (The Essential Rumi, published by HarperCollins in 1995). Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, more popularly simply known as Rumi, was a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. His poems have been the best-selling poetry in North America for at least two decades. The most popular of them is probably “A Great Wagon,” which is somehow representative of the image of Rumi in the popular imagination of Western readers as a mystic beyond the realm of religious dogma. Actually, he wasn’t by any means a mainstream Muslim. In particular, he had a deeply transformative life experience—his meeting with the dervish Shams-e Tabrizi on  November 15, 1244—at the age of thirty-seven, that transformed an accomplished teacher and jurist into an ascetic, and changed his traditional Muslim worldview to an ecstatically mystical one, which provided the main inspiration for his poetry.

It is certainly not without reason that Rumi remains the most popular poet in America today. As Jawid Mojaddedi points out, to many who claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” his poems represent direct spiritual connection with a higher power: ‘There is a lot of correspondence between the teachings of Rumi and the increasing Spiritual But Not Religious trend; the popularity of both are undoubtedly related.’ Yet, he continues, ‘there is a huge difference between prioritizing the feeling of peace through individualistic practice and developing spirituality under the training of a master,’ as Sufism teaches—and Rumi was himself a Sufi—‘even though neither need be religious in the conventional sense.’

Rumi has sometimes been compared to Dante, with whom he was contemporary, even though Dante was much younger than him: when Rumi died in 1273, Dante was just eight years old. What is certain is that both Rumi and Dante closed the Middle Ages, because although their works are imbued with medieval thought, they introduce new concepts about life, love, compassion, and religion. It’s also certain that, according to both Dante and Rumi, beauty is a fundamental element in the road to truth, while love is the only way towards salvation.

As Nour Seblini puts it (“On Mystical Metamorphosis in Christianity and Islam: Dante’s Divine Comedy and Rumi’s Masnavi in Comparative Perspective”),

A search for absolute morals expressed with intense emotions and a spiritual ardor is a value shared in Rumi’s Masnavi and Dante’s Divine Comedy, the most influential medieval works of the East and West, respectively. Their inner selves undergo a purifying process from sins and get beautified with traits that permit their union with the Divine.
Love transforms the human heart by purifying its mirror and consequently prepares it to attract the Divine. Its personification comes in the figure of Shamsoddin of Tabriz that reflects the Sun of Truth for Rumi; while for Dante what is synonymous with such kind of love is the figure of Beatrice. Both poets, as it will be demonstrated in more details in this work, present love as the divine essence making the beloved a fundamental element in human’s search for the Eternal; in this way, love becomes the animating spirit of mysticism which in turn lies at the very heart of Dante’s and Rumi’s work. In the New Life, Dante’s declaration that “ladies understand Love’s every way” signals that love is the soul of knowledge. Dante the poet is seeking wholeness through love. A thorough examination of his mystical journey shows that since the beginning the quest was set by his love for a woman, Beatrice Portinari, with whom his relationship evolved back on earth in Florence, who would lead him through a synchronicity of time and eternity to his ultimate transcendence as he attains redemption.

Please note that in the first line of the above quoted verse, Rumi is talking of ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, not rightdoing and wrongdoing per se. Which roughly means that what we think to be good or bad is not necessarily what is actually good or bad. Our ideas, though we may believe them to be based on God’s Word and will, are much less important than Love. Love transcends everything. Omnia vincit amor et nos cedamus amori (Virgil’s Eclogues 10:69, Love conquers all; let us, too, yield to Love!).

P.S. Click here to read the full text of the poem.

February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday AND St. Valentine’s Day

Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day both occur on the same time this year, and that’s today. Of course “Ash Wednesday has precedence,” says Cardinal Dolan, “and the coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day would not lift for us the duty of fasting and self-denial.” But a more positive way to look at it, he continues, is that “both days center on the heart”:

The very symbol of St. Valentine’s Day is the heart, the icon of love, especially the romantic love between a man and a woman. We’ll send greetings and boxes of sweets that are both heart-shaped.
Ash Wednesday, the first of forty days of prayer, penance, and charity we call Lent, leading us to Holy Week and Easter, is also about the heart: a heart called sacred, wounded by unreturned love, broken by callousness and selfishness: the heart of Jesus.
This heart is on fire with love for us, but surrounded by a crown of thorns. It will be pierced by a spear on that Friday weirdly termed “good” on a hill called Calvary, a heart beating in the broken body of a man on a cross.
It is the love of this heart from which all true love flows. It is this Sacred Heart we trust this Wednesday; it is this Heart we turn to through our repentance and acts of sacrifice and atonement this Wednesday.
St. Valentine willingly bows to this Sacred Heart, for which even he lovingly gave his life eighteen centuries ago.

Now then, my dear fellow Catholics, have a Blessed Ash Wednesday AND a Happy St. Valentine’s Day!

January 27, 2018

The European R-Word

The whole matter has developed into a national scandal, to the point that even Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) President Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti felt it necessary to weigh in on this. “We thought talk of (the white) race had been buried for good,” he said after League Lombardy governor candidate Attilio Fontana recently said migrants threatened the white race. To be precise, Fontana said, “We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society continues to exist or if it will be wiped out.” Subsequently he said that it had been a “slip of the tongue,” and made it clear that it’s not about being xenophobic or racist, “it’s just about being logical or rational.”

While some on the center-right agreed there was a real risk to Italian society in the numbers of migrants arriving here, the mainstream media and parties condemned the comments. European leaders, in turn, expressed concerns about what they consider an increasingly xenophobic tone of the campaign for the March 4 general election. Even ex-prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose center-right Forza Italia party is the League’s coalition partner for the elections, said Fontana’s comment had been “unfortunate.” But he also said that it would be “a serious mistake to focus too much attention on one wrong word and not on the risk that Europe loses its identity.” On the same wavelength, but even more strongly, League head Matteo Salvini said Italy was “under attack.” “Our culture, our society, our traditions and our way of life are threatened. An invasion is under way,” he said. However, even Matteo Salvini failed to pronounce the word ‘race’. Why? Because in Europe, unlike in the U.S., the word ‘race’ has been banned. Italy is obviously no exception, even though the Constitution itself expressly talks of different ‘races’. In fact, Article 3 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic reads as follows: “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions.” In other words, according to the fundamental law of the country, different races do exist, but nonetheless, you cannot pronounce the word in question. One of political correctness’s many mysteries.

Now we all know there is a social science bias towards the belief that  the differences between the different races are so minimal that they don’t qualify as a strong enough reason to think that there are actually separate races. Accordingly, there is actually only one human race and that is Homo sapiens, and by consequence the correct term to use is ethnicity... Yet, even though the differences are minor they are real and they do define a person’s race—or ‘ethnicity’, ‘ethnic background’, or whatever you like to call it. Therefore, if the exclusion of ‘race’ as a term means denying the genetic differences between groups of people, there is something deeply wrong with the whole concept. Ask a physician about this, and he/she will tell you that he/she sees the differences between races in how they are affected differently by infectious diseases, genetic diseases and cancer. To be precise, from a physician’s point of view asking a person’s ethnicity is basically a cultural question, asking their race is asking something else. The terms are not interchangeable.

As Bruce T. Lahn and Lanny Ebenstein wrote in an opinion piece in Nature (“Let’s celebrate human genetic diversity,” October 8, 2009),

A growing body of data is revealing the nature of human genetic diversity at increasingly finer resolution. It is now recognized that despite the high degree of genetic similarities that bind humanity together as a species, considerable diversity exists at both individual and group levels […]. The biological significance of these variations remains to be explored fully. But enough evidence has come to the fore to warrant the question: what if scientific data ultimately demonstrate that genetically based biological variation exists at non-trivial levels not only among individuals but also among groups? In our view, the scientific community and society at large are ill-prepared for such a possibility. We need a moral response to this question that is robust irrespective of what research uncovers about human diversity. Here, we argue for the moral position that genetic diversity, from within or among groups, should be embraced and celebrated as one of humanity’s chief assets.

The current moral position is a sort of ‘biological egalitarianism’. This dominant position emerged in recent decades largely to correct grave historical injustices, including genocide, that were committed with the support of pseudoscientific understandings of group diversity. The racial-hygiene theory promoted by German geneticists Fritz Lenz, Eugene Fischer and others during the Nazi era is one notorious example of such pseudoscience. Biological egalitarianism is the view that no or almost no meaningful genetically based biological differences exist among human groups, with the exception of a few superficial traits such as skin colour. Proponents of this view seem to hope that, by promoting biological sameness, discrimination against groups or individuals will become groundless.

We believe that this position, although well-intentioned, is illogical and even dangerous, as it implies that if significant group diversity were established, discrimination might thereby be justified. We reject this position. Equality of opportunity and respect for human dignity should be humankind’s common aspirations, notwithstanding human differences no matter how big or small. We also think that biological egalitarianism may not remain viable in light of the growing body of empirical data.

Somewhere in the Web I also read that the mantra that “Race Does Not Exist” is roughly similar to claiming that “Teeth Do Not Exist” or perhaps “Hills Do Not Exist,” with the latter being an especially good parallel.

It is perfectly correct that the notion of ‘hill’ is ill-defined and vague—what precise height distinguishes a pile of dirt from a hill and a hill from a mountain?—but nevertheless denying the reality or usefulness of such a concept would be an absurdity. Similarly, the notion of distinct human races—genetic clusters across a wide variety of scales and degrees of fuzziness—is an obviously useful and correct organizing principle…

Generally speaking, common sense should lead us to think that mentioning and being aware of racial differences is not the same thing as racism . In fact, racism is assuming those differences have an innate value scale attached (one is better than another), it’s “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (Merriam-Webster’s dictionary). But as Voltaire once said, “Common sense is not so common.”

December 12, 2017

Athens and Jerusalem

View of Jerusalem (Conrad Grünenberg, 1487)

Il fatto è che questa non è una città: questa è la vita di ciascuno di noi, che a volte c’illude e a volte ci fa disperare, a volte ci sembra irreale, a volte inutile. La nostra avventura interiore, il nostro eterno viaggio, la nostra vera crociata, è la conquista di un senso da dare alla vita. Questa è la Gerusalemme della quale abbiamo bisogno, alla quale aspiriamo.
(The fact is that this is not a city—this is everyone’s life. Sometimes she deceives us, and other times she drives us to despair, she seems unreal at times, and at other times useless. It is our inner adventure, our eternal journey, our true crusade, and the achievement of giving life a meaning. This is the Jerusalem we need, the one we dream about.)

~ Franco Cardini, Gerusalemme. Una storia (English translation mine)

The above quote came to mind almost as soon as I started reading a gorgeous article at American Thinker titled “What Has Jerusalem to Do with America?” by Fay Voshell. The article takes its cue from the furor following President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but carefully avoids any excess and tries to keep a high profile.

Since the incipit Voshell captures the attention of the reader by quoting a statement by Tertullian—the founder of Latin Christian literature and one of the most powerful formative influences in Western Christian culture—concerning the importance of Jerusalem as contrasted with the secular city of Athens. He wrote, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? After we become Christians, we have no need of Greek philosophy.” Well, somehow paradoxically Tertullian’s drastic view, his outright hostility toward the entanglement of religion and the world, has largely been adopted by the left and, in general, by those who believe in radical separation of church and state: Jerusalem has nothing to do with Athens—or America and the West. They have a substitute, secular vision for the world. This substitute vision, says Voshell, is presently called globalism. And globalism

has a deep interest in supplanting Judaism and Christianity, both of which share the eternal spiritual vision of Jerusalem as the holy city whose foundational principles are critical to any society choosing justice and righteousness above power and might.
The globalist vision is against any particular identification by nation or religion. To acknowledge Jerusalem […] is to ratify the cornerstone beliefs of Western civilization while the real desire is to allow two competitors for a new world vision to advance their dreams of empire. The one is the secularist vision of the E.U. and the United Nations; the other is the vision of a global caliphate.
[…] What is at the heart of the debate over Jerusalem is the spiritual foundations of Western civilization. What is being sought is the extermination of the Judeo-Christian consensus that has animated the West and now increasingly much of the globe, ever more gradually over the last five thousand years. What is being hoped for is the actualization of an alternate vision, be it secular or Islamist, by assimilating or destroying Jerusalem. Opposing visions cannot tolerate the vision of the Holy City.
But the truth is that Jerusalem is like no other city.
She is not like El Dorado, the Lost City of Gold that men vainly sought for attaining wealth and fame. Nor is she the city where the Fountain of Youth was sought that men might live forever. Nor is she like fabled Troy, city of Priam’s treasure and the beauteous Helen, both exquisite but mortal. Nor is she the mythical city of Atlantis, powerful and beautiful but sunk forever into the dark seas.
All of those cities have perished, only to become myths, the legends of which continue to fade.
Jerusalem is the Eternal City allied with eternal truth. No one can take her identity from her, even though once again, as it has for thousands of years, a great Beast slouches toward Bethlehem.
She remains a light to the world—a beacon for the past, for the present and for the future.
Jerusalem is the Shining City on the Hill.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? What else can I say? Amen!

November 23, 2017

Happy Thanksgiving!

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe
Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden (Netherlands)

For us Christians, thanksgiving is an everyday event that begins with a state of mind, an attitude. That’s also why the American Thanksgiving Day is not a church holiday. It’s actually a national holiday, even though the idea of giving thanks to God is a very Christian one. In a speech delivered in London at the annual banquet of the American Society on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 26, 1903, a prominent U.S. politician, William Jennings Bryan, stated that “On Thanksgiving Day we acknowledge our dependence.”

In other words, to the extent that it is right and good that Americans celebrate their Independence Day as the time when they gained release from tyranny, Thanksgiving Day is precisely the time when they recognize that all of the bounty they have is not merely, and perhaps not so much, the result of their own efforts and dedication, but also a gift to them from their Creator. That’s also the reason why this is one my favorite holidays, even though I’m not an American citizen—but definitely an American by philosophy!

Here are a couple excerpts from the above mentioned speech. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, Americans and non-Americans, men and women of goodwill!

On the Fourth of July the eagle seems a little larger than it does on any other day, and its scream may grate more harshly on the foreign ear than it does at any other time. But on this day we cultivate reverence and express our appreciation of those blessings that have come to our country without the thought or aid of Americans. We have reason to look with some degree of pride upon the achievement of the United States; we contemplate the present with satisfaction, and look to the future with hope; and yet on this occasion we may well remember that we are but building upon the foundations that have been laid for us. We did not create the fertile soil that is the basis of our agricultural greatness; the streams that drain and feed our valleys were not channeled by human hands. We did not fashion the climate that gives us the white cotton belt of the south, the yellow wheat belt of the north, and the central corn belt that joins the two and overlaps them both. We do not gather up the moisture and fix the date of the early and later rains; we did not hide away in the mountains the gold and the silver; we did not store in the earth the deposits of copper and of zinc; we did not create the measures of coal and the beds of iron. All these natural resources, which we have but commenced to develop, are the gift of Him before whom we bow in gratitude tonight.
We sometimes feel that we have a sort of proprietary interest in the principles of government set forth in the Declaration of Independence. That is a document which we have given to the world, and yet the principles set forth therein were not invented by an American. Thomas Jefferson expressed them in felicitous language and put them into permanent form, but the principles had been known before. The doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with inalienable rights, that governments were instituted amongst men to secure these rights, and that they derived their just power from the consent of the governed—this doctrine which stands four square with all the world was not conceived in the United States, it did not spring from the American mind—ay, it did not come so much from any mind as it was an emanation from the heart, and it had been in the hearts of men for ages. Before Columbus turned the prow of his ship toward the west on that eventful voyage, before the Barons wrested Magna Charta from King John—yes, before the Roman legions landed on the shores of this island—ay, before Homer sang—that sentiment had nestled in the heart of man, and nerved him to resist the oppressor. That sentiment was not even of human origin. Our own great Lincoln declared that it was God Himself who implanted in every human heart the love of liberty.

November 21, 2017

Dante and Beatrice

Henry Holiday (1839 - 1927), "Dante and Beatrice"
Walker Art Gallery - Liverpool, UK

As some of you readers know, Beatrice was the love of Dante’s life: she was a real person and the Poet decided to use her as an important character in his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. The tradition that identifies Bice di Folco Portinari—the daughter of a banker and wife of Simone dei Bardi—as the Beatrice loved by Dante is now widely, though not unanimously, accepted by scholars.

Beatrice, whom Dante first saw and fell in love with when he was nine years old and a few months older then her, probably never had any idea of the depth of the Poet’s passion for her. For the next nine years after he first met her, Dante remained absolutely besotted with Beatrice. “From that time forward love fully ruled my soul,” as he later wrote in his Vita Nuova. But he loved her only from a distance and it was only when he was 18 that the young angelic creature spoke to Dante to greet him—a very rare event, indeed, in a time when women weren’t in the habit of taking any kind of initiative with men!—as they passed each other in the street. This is how Dante himself describes the meeting in the Vita Nuova:

When so many days had passed that exactly nine years were completed since the appearance of this most gracious being […], it happened, on the last of these days, that this marvellous lady appeared to me, dressed in the whitest of white, between two gracious ladies who were of greater age: and passing through a street she turned her eyes to the place where I stood greatly fearful, and, with her ineffable courtesy […] she greeted me so virtuously, so much so that I saw then to the very end of grace. The hour at which her so sweet greeting welcomed me was exactly the ninth of that day, and because it was the first time that her words deigned to come to my ears, I found such sweetness that I left the crowd as if intoxicated, and I returned to the solitude of my own room, and fell to thinking of this most gracious one.

Dante is led by Beatrice to contemplate the fixed stars
 Libreria Marciana, Venice.
14th Century Venetian School. Illumination
 Photo Credit: Erich Lessing
Of course Dante’s love for Beatrice is not a secular love, at least no more than that which is described in the Canticle of Canticles—with all due distinctions—or in the songs of twelfth- and thirteenth-century troubadours and minnesingers. By the way, judging from the literature of that period, that was a time when love was at the core of everything: besides the songs of troubadours and minnesingers, and the emergence of the “romance” among court poets, monastic theologians engaged in an intense and extensive dialogue on Solomon’s Song that gave birth to an outpouring of sermons and commentaries on the same topic. Love was being celebrated as central to human experience, extolling its joys and honoring its pains, plumbing the depths of its anguish and measuring the heights of its delight. The trajectory of this cultural zeitgeist—which had its apogee with Dante’s Divine Comedy—passed through a group of 13th–14th-century Italian poets, mostly Florentines and including Guido Guinizelli, Guido Cavalcanti and Dante himself, who wrote in what the “Sommo Poeta” called the “dolce stil nuovo” (“sweet new style”). They fused troubadour and minnesinger elements (Dante’s worldly view of Beatrice as an idealized-yet-approachable being, for one thing, is drawn from love à la Provençale), but their treatment of love was their own. To them , love purifies the heart as with fire. Love reflects the divine and leads the spirit back to the supreme source of Love itself. Hence the love of Dante for Beatrice transcends the physical: he wishes to contemplate and to worship in Beatrice a revelation of the divine—not for nothing she is usually taken to be an allegory of divine grace. It is a love of the heart and the intellect, the manifestation of a sacred or divine love in the mortal world, even though, at the same time, the lady is not an ethereal, unreachable entity of epic overtones, but a woman-in-town, someone who is both admirable and visible. It follows the description of love by St. Thomas Aquinas called “amor amicitiae” (love of friendship), based on spirituality and mysticism, which is the exact opposite of “amor concupiscentiae” (love of concupiscence), based on physical or sexual lust. In other words, Dante’s love for Beatrice was never of an adulterous nature nor was it of the unrequited kind that causes mere yearning for a relationship. Definitely a strange type of love, one that you don’t see much of in the real world of today!

As a result of this, in the Comedy Beatrice is an image of absolute perfection and functions as an intermediary in Dante’s ascent to God. Beatrice was also the main inspiration of the above mentioned Vita Nuova, which contains the widely-celebrated sonetto “Tanto gentile.” Here is an English translation of the sonnet and the words with which Dante himself introduces his poem.

This most gracious lady of whom I have spoken in the preceding poems came into such widespread favor that, when she walked down the street, people ran to see her. This made me wonderfully happy. And when she passed by someone, such modesty filled his heart that he did not dare to raise his eyes or to return her greeting (many people, who have experienced this, could testify to it if anyone should not believe me).

Crowned and clothed with humility, she would go her way, taking no glory from what she heard and saw. Many would say after she had passed: “This is no woman, this is one of the most beautiful angels of Heaven.” And others would say: “She is a miracle! Blessed be the Lord who can work so wondrously.”
Let me say that she showed such decorum and was possessed of such charming qualities that those who looked at her experienced a pure and sweet delight, such that they were unable to describe it; and there was no one who could look at her without immediately sighing.

These and still more marvelous things were the result of her powers. Thinking about this, and wishing to take up again the theme of her praise, I decided to write something which would describe her magnificent and beneficent efficacy, so that not only those who could see her with their own eyes, but others, as well, might know of her whatever can be said in words. And so I wrote this sonnet which begins: Such sweet decorum.

Such sweet decorum and such gentle grace
attend my lady’s greeting to mankind
that lips can only tremble into silence,
and eyes dare not attempt to gaze at her.
Untouched by all the praise along her way,
she moves in goodness, clothed in humbleness,
and seems a creature come from Heaven to earth,
a miracle manifest in reality.
Miraculously gracious to behold,
her sweetness, through the eyes reaches the heart
(who has not felt this cannot understand),
and from her lips there seems to move a spirit
tender, so deeply loving that it glides
into the souls of men and whispers: ‘Sigh!’

To conclude, with specific reference to Dante’s epic poem, I want to warn against focusing too one-sidedly on the love for Beatrice, in fact there are many other love stories in The Divine Comedy. There are loves gone wrong—but somehow awesome at the same time—such as the love between Paolo and Francesca (Inferno, Canto V), Ulysses’s love of knowledge (Ibidem, Canto XXVI), Ugolino’s love for his children (Ibidem, Canto XXXIII), and Farinata’s love for Florence (Ibidem, Canto X). And there are loves without fault, such as the one between Dante and Virgil, that is the relationship of a mentor and a protégé. As perhaps no earlier writer, Dante celebrates such a relationship by calling Virgil not only master, guide, and teacher, but also “dearest father,” and by comparing his concern for him to that of a mother for her child. Or the love of St. Bernard of Clairvaux for the Virgin Mary—hence one of the most beautiful prayers ever written (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII). Not to mention the “love that moves the sun and the other stars” (Ibidem) That’s what is meant when we say that The Divine Comedy is a love story.

In the old video below you can hear Giorgio Albertazzi—one of the most important actors of the Italian theater—reciting “Tanto gentile.”