In 1996 my wife and I made a trip to Italy. For a few days we drove with no destination. When we came to an intersection, we took the smallest road offered. This landed us one night in northern Campania, a village called Castello di Matese. Nobody spoke English. A stationer explained, the place was too small to put on a map. It was the off season; nobody was in the hotel.
oranges and water
Just arrived in Castello di Matese, we bought oranges. The signora weighed two, decided on the price, L. 1,800, then added a third one. Neither she nor I had change for a 5,000 lire note. She decided to give us the oranges for L. 1,000, which I did have. I offered the third orange back, but she would not take it.
Next morning, we went back to the same spot to buy water. The signora said the price was L. 1,500. I had ready the 800 still owing from last night, but again she refused. She said if we don’t show such courtesies to each other, life is not worth living. After a little more conversation—she has a nephew in the U.S—and exchange of compliments, she dropped the price of the water to L. 1,000.
This woman clearly had less than we do. The clothes I was wearing probably cost more than all the merchandise in her store. Why did she give me anything? An American might say she had the ‘pride of the poor’. But her words about her motives were nothing about pride, which she has known from her cradle is a sin.
‘Lei è molto gentile’ goes a long way toward making friends. People usually answer ‘anche lei.’ You are very kind. And so are you.
We walked to the only hotel in town, where we had to knock persistently to raise anyone. I asked whether it wouldn’t be more polite of us to go on, but the man said no; but it would take about two hours to make a room warm enough. We gladly took a walk around while waiting.
At dinner we got into conversation with the owner and gis wife, and two of their friends who dropped in. I wonder whether the friends were invited just to meet us. We learned that he is pensionato, retired, from the city of Napoli, though he doesn’t look more than 55 years old. He likes to read history, politics, and philosophy; he doesn’t go to church. He told us how missionaries had carried a lot of disease to the New World. As he said these things his wife made a little moue of embarrassment and apology; clearly she does go to church.
One of the great differences between Italy and the United States is in religious culture. Italians don’t think they are religious people. But every day in most towns, bells ring every time the Mass is said, starting at seven in the morning. They don’t ring just a few strokes, nor just the hours. They ring continuously through the Gloria and the Consecration. This sound opened our holiday in San Gimignano; it blesses whatever it happens to collide with.
In Venezia the bells are big and the churches many. The peals crash in an out of phase with each other, making thick dissonance through the stone streets. By passive participation in the prayers, the streets become extensions of the church. Everyone hearing the bells knows people are praying for him in two senses. The church petitions God constantly for everyone’s well-being, and the people inside perform this obligation for those who are absent or negligent.
Vicarious atonement, corporate identity, catholicity in short, is a much different thing from our Puritan individualism. We are afraid God will forget us if we don’t say the prayers ourselves, making clear we are not laggards. The invidious comparison with those who do neglect their duty is essential. We want to see a bright line between ourselves and others, and ourselves on the right side of it. There must be double predestination, with visible signs, to feed our Protestant insecurity.
But in a Catholic country, in a curious way it is safe to reject the church. Our small time intellectual friend at Castello can assert his independence, remain absent to his heart’s content. Bells and prayers still embrace him inescapably. His wife was embarrassed because he acted silly; but it was mild embarrassment, matter-of-fact, not fearful. She simply knows something he does not.
But here too, people may be growing more American—that is, more politically liberal, more Protestant, more individualistic. Italians are consumers, and consumerism makes no sense except as a facet of individualism. What I buy differentiates and identifies me. Liturgical prayer is the opposite; it makes me part of a whole. The result of this is an erosion of our sense of common cause with each other. The breakdown o is already sharply evident in Italian secular politics. By this process they are forgetting themselves. This, not McDonalds, is the really baleful consequence of American hegemony.