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Sunday, October 7, 2012

First Steps into the Faith



                                                         
                 

Not long ago I received a telephone call from an old friend of mine. We hadn’t seen each othersince I left Italy to come to America twelve years ago. We were both in our early forties back then, and our hair was starting to turn gray. To exorcise the looming old age we used to give each other advices on the hair-color that would look best with our complexions. I’ve been a brunette, a red-head and a blond, but when I lived in Italy I never considered the possibility of letting my beautiful locks grow white. So my friend wouldn’t believe me when I told her that lately I’ve made precisely that choice.
°Are you serious?” she exclaimed, “Why on earth would you do something so drastic?”
“Actually I think that I look better this way,” I answered. “However, I don’t obsess about my age anymore.”
“Good for you,” she said. “But I still think it’s important for a woman to try to look younger.”
“Well, now I have other priorities. I’ve become more spiritual.”
“Oh! Are you into Buddhism again?”
“No, that’s way in the past. I’m a Christian.”
“Really?”  I never thought that you were the religious type.”

My friend was right, I certainly was not. I tried Zen meditation in my twenties but that remained an isolated attempt, although it lasted for about two years. Unfortunately it didn’t get me anywhere close to enlightenment. I lived most of my life as an agnostic, harboring a certain condescendence for religious practices. My upbringing had left me with a very poor image of the Church and everything related to it. The religiosity to which I was exposed as a teen-ager was only a parody of true Christianity. I wasn’t very lucky, in fact today I know that growing up in a Christian family and attending a Catholic institution can be a rewarding experience.

I was the youngest child in the family. My brother and sister were much older than me and professing skepticism toward religion. I remember the house where we lived. It was the perfect arena for my imaginary adventures. I used to climb on top of furniture or hide inside them, pretending that I was a pirate on a ship or a princess in a castle. The dining-room was crowded with sea-monsters and mermaids carved in dark walnut, whereas in the living-room knights and damsels were riding and dancing within golden frames on every wall. But the place of honor had been given to a porcelain statue of the Buddha, happily crouched down between two huge Chinese vases. Like the majority of Italian families we were Catholics, but images of Jesus or Mary were nowhere in sight except for in my parent’s bedroom. Apparently my mother didn’t
find them appropriate for a fancy interior decoration. 
She used to tell me the story of her conversion. Her father was an atheist and, opposing his wife’s will, he refused to have their six children baptized. But at the age of twelve my mother decided to receive the Sacraments afterseeing the Devil materializing in the hallway, purple red and equipped with horns and tail.
“Come on, mom!” I would say, “That can’t be true! Someone must have put on a costume to scare you!”
“You’re wrong,” she would answer. “It was real. So real that it prompted me to convert.”

My mother sent me to Catholic school, but I have no pleasant memories of those years. The Catechism classes that I attended concentrated mostly on sin. The most important thing to learn was how to avoid God’s wrath. No one talked to me about Jesus or the New Testament. All I knew was that the sweet baby that we put in the manger on Christmas evening grew up to meet a gruesome death. He was the man covered in blood and hanging on the cross inside the church. I tried not to look at that crucifix because it scared me. It was life-size and a bit too realistic.
The nuns made us wear ugly uniforms and go to Mass every morning. I was bored and planning rebellion. I deeply disliked that school. And so, from the age of fourteen on, I did not give another thought to Jesus. For me he was an historical figure that, for unfathomable reasons, had become the center of a religion. Nothing more than that.

I was fifty years old when I read the Gospels for the first time. Caught by the desire to understand I read them again and again. Slowly but steadily a real person emerged from those pages and become a tangible presence in my life. His personality had many faces. He was at the same time incredibly human and out-of-the world. Human in his loneliness, anger and fear; supra-natural in his all-embracing love, goodness and courage. Human in the way he fit as a prophet in his historical context; divine in his mysterious message. “The Kingdom of God is at hand”, he said. This is true for each of us. We can enter the Kingdom by taking Jesus’ hand. Elaborated techniques of meditation are unnecessary. All we need is to absorb his teachings into
our heart. It came natural to me and I was healed.