Stories & Reflections
Father Giancarlo Fontana, 72
Of course I was surprised when the couple, both of them much too young, came to the church to arrange the wedding ceremony. I hardly knew Lukás Jessen-Petersen, but that same day, I learned that his family – obscure aristocrats from Denmark – were totally opposed to the union. They weren’t just against the marriage, they were against the Church as well.
According to his father – who based himself on frankly unanswerable scientific arguments – the Bible, on which the whole religion is based, wasn’t really a book, but a collage of sixty-six different manuscripts, the real name or identity of whose authors is unknown; he said that almost a thousand years elapsed between the writing of the first book and the last, longer than the time that has elapsed since Columbus discovered America. And no living being on the planet – from monkeys down to parrots – needs ten commandments in order to know how to behave. All that it takes for the world to remain in harmony is for each being to follow the laws of nature.
Naturally, I read the Bible and know a little of its history, but the human beings who wrote it were instruments of Divine Power, and Jesus forged a far stronger bond than the ten commandments: love. Birds and monkeys, or any of God’s creatures, obey their instincts and merely do what they’re programmed to do. In the case of the human being, things are more complicated because we know about love and its traps.
Oh dear, here I am making a sermon, when I should be telling you about my meeting with Athena and Lukás. While I was talking to the young man – and I say talking, because we don’t share the same faith, and I’m not, therefore, bound by the secret of the confessional – I learned that, as well as the household’s general anticlericalism, there was a lot of resistance to Athena because she was a foreigner. I felt like quoting from the Bible, from a part that isn’t a profession of faith, but a call to common sense:
‘Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land.’
I’m sorry, there I am quoting the Bible again, and I promise I’ll try to control myself from now on. After talking to the young man, I spent at least two hours with Sherine, or Athena as she preferred to be called.
Athena had always intrigued me. Ever since she first started coming to the church, it seemed to me that she had one clear ambition: to become a saint. She told me – although her fiancé didn’t know this – that shortly before civil war broke out in Beirut, she’d had an experience very similar to that of St Thérèse of Lisieux: she had seen the streets running with blood. One could attribute this to some trauma in childhood or adolescence, but the fact is that, to a greater or lesser extent, all creative human beings have such experiences, which are known as ‘possession by the sacred’. Suddenly, for a fraction of a second, we feel that our whole life is justified, our sins forgiven, and that love is still the strongest force, one that can transform us forever.
But, at the same time, we feel afraid. Surrendering completely to love, be it human or divine, means giving up everything, including our own well-being or our ability to make decisions. It means loving in the deepest sense of the word. The truth is that we don’t want to be saved in the way God has chosen; we want to keep absolute control over our every step, to be fully conscious of our decisions, to be capable of choosing the object of our devotion.
It isn’t like that with love – it arrives, moves in and starts directing everything. Only very strong souls allow themselves to be swept along, and Athena was a strong soul. So strong that she spent hours in deep contemplation. She had a special gift for music; they say that she danced very well too, but since the church isn’t really the appropriate place for that, she used to bring her guitar each morning and spend some time there singing to the Holy Virgin before going off to her classes.
I can still remember the first time I heard her. I’d just finished celebrating morning mass with the few parishioners prepared to get up that early on a winter’s morning, when I realised that I’d forgotten to collect the money left in the offering box. When I went back in, I heard some music that made me see everything differently, as if the atmosphere had been touched by the hand of an angel. In one corner, in a kind of ecstasy, a young woman of about twenty sat playing her guitar and singing hymns of praise, with her eyes fixed on the statue of the Holy Virgin.
I went over to the offering box. She noticed my presence and stopped what she was doing, but I nodded to her, encouraging her to go on. Then I sat down on one of the pews, closed my eyes and listened.
At that moment, a sense of Paradise, of ‘possession by the sacred’, seemed to descend from the heavens. As if she understood what was going on in my heart, the young woman began to intersperse music with silence. Each time she stopped playing, I would say a prayer. Then the music would start up again.
And I was conscious that I was experiencing something unforgettable, one of those magical moments which we only understand when it has passed. I was entirely in the present, with no past, no future, absorbed in experiencing the morning, the music, the sweetness and the unexpected prayer. I entered a state of worship and ecstasy and gratitude for being in the world, glad that I’d followed my vocation despite my family’s opposition. In the simplicity of that small chapel, in the voice of that young woman, in the morning light flooding everything, I understood once again that the grandeur of God reveals itself through simple things.
After many tears on my part and after what seemed to me an eternity, the young woman stopped playing. I turned round and realised that she was one of my parishioners. After that, we became friends, and whenever we could, we shared in that worship through music.
However, the idea of marriage took me completely by surprise. Since we knew each other fairly well, I asked how she thought her husband’s family would react.
‘Badly, very badly.’
As tactfully as I could, I asked if, for any reason, she was being forced into marriage.
‘No, I’m still a virgin. I’m not pregnant.’
I asked if she’d told her own family, and she said that she had, and that their reaction had been one of horror, accompanied by tears from her mother and threats from her father.
‘When I come here to praise the Virgin with my music, I’m not bothered about what other people might think, I’m simply sharing my feelings with Her. And that’s how it’s always been, ever since I was old enough to think for myself. I’m a vessel in which the Divine Energy can make itself manifest. And that energy is asking me now to have a child, so that I can give it what my birth mother never gave me: protection and security.’
‘No one is secure on this Earth,’ I replied. She still had a long future ahead of her; there was plenty of time for the miracle of creation to occur. However, Athena was determined:
‘St Thérèse didn’t rebel against the illness that afflicted her, on the contrary, she saw it as a sign of God’s Glory. St Thérèse was only fifteen, much younger than me, when she decided to enter a convent. She was forbidden to do so, but she insisted. She decided to go and speak to the Pope himself – can you imagine? To speak to the Pope! And she got what she wanted. That same Glory is asking something far simpler and far more generous of me – to become a mother. If I wait much longer, I won’t be able to be a companion to my child, the age difference will be too great, and we won’t share the same interests.’
She wouldn’t be alone in that, I said.
But Athena continued as if she wasn’t listening:
‘I’m only happy when I think that God exists and is listening to me; but that isn’t enough to go on living, when nothing seems to make sense. I pretend a happiness I don’t feel; I hide my sadness so as not to worry those who love me and care about me. Recently, I’ve even considered suicide. At night, before I go to sleep, I have long conversations with myself, praying for this idea to go away; it would be such an act of ingratitude, an escape, a way of spreading tragedy and misery over the Earth. In the mornings, I come here to talk to St Thérèse and to ask her to free me from the demons I speak to at night. It’s worked so far, but I’m beginning to weaken. I know I have a mission which I’ve long rejected, and now I must accept it. That mission is to be a mother. I must carry out that mission or go mad. If I don’t feel life growing inside me, I’ll never be able to accept life outside me.’
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