A Sunday of New Rituals / Una Domenica di Nuovi Rituali

My first Sunday in Civita is Ferragosto.

For Catholics, today is the annual festival celebrating Mary’s ascension into heaven, while in pagan times, it was a feast for Diana and a much-deserved rest from hard summer labor in the fields.

I found it amusing that, for pagans (and modern day Italians), it heralds a time of leisure and vacation, whereas the Roman Catholic Church has named it, “a Holy Day of Obligation.”

A tapestry of bells called me to mass with Tony — the second mass I’ve attended in 18 years. In a liberal town like Seattle, I often forget how seriously people elsewhere observe religion, but I was reminded of that when petite Josè arrived at Tony’s gate to escort us alla Piazza del Duomo Vecchio wearing her fabulous green-tinted spectacles and very Italian Sunday best.

From our seat in the back pew, my eyes fell over this well-used church, once the site of an ancient Etruscan temple. The delicate frescoes on the ceiling have nearly vanished and the white-washed walls are in need of rehab (the outside is currently under renovation), with tape marking where pictures once hung. Piled at the back are construction materials, draped tables with red prayer candles for sale, and of course, a donation box next to the wooden double doors.

As I scanned the altar, outfitted in candles and cloth, I made out a glass coffin in which rests the body of St. Donato dressed in golden garb. Talk about obligation. (Similarly, St. Bonaventure’s arm resides in nearby Bagnoregio.) Apparently, when you marry into the church, parts of you never leave for vacation, even at harvest time.

After mass, Josè (short for Guiseppina) invited me out for a coffee on the Piazza Colesanti, the small plaza one encounters after moving through the main gate, to watch la fare una passagiata. She asked what I thought of the service, to which I recalled the experience of attending mass with my mother as a child. I was close to revealing a thought that occurred to me as I watched everyone else take communion, but I refrained from responding, “Non è la mia religione, ma la rispetto.”

Listening to the priest deliver his sermon in Italian, hearing the 20 or so locals sing unfamiliar tunes, smelling the incense that we never used in my church — I realized that this really was never my religion. Only when faced with these rituals in a foreign context did I conclude how truly foreign organized religion has always felt to me, even though I was forced to pretend belief in my youth.

That word, obligation, is exactly how I’ve always felt about Catholicism; the attitudes and traditions are ones in which I never found comfort or reward, though it seemed that my peers and their families did. Looking at today’s attendees, who were mostly women between 60 and 80, two men of the same age, and two mothers with small children, I couldn’t see myself as their peer in any way.

After we discussed my mother’s family and the good weather (a complete reversal from yesterday’s deluge and brutti venti) Josè was interested to learn my Italian heritage and the cognomi (surnames) of my grandparents. Soon after our cappuccini al fresco, I discovered why: she needed to know how to tell my story to others.

In our walk home, I delighted in the sweet entwine of Josè’s arm through mine. It felt very Italian that a 70-something woman who stands several inches shorter than me could lead me yet also use me for support in our trek through the tourists across the stones.

As we passed her fellow Civitonici, Josè paused to say in Italian, “May I present Gabriela Frank, an American writer who is a fellow with NIAUSI – she is one of Tony’s. She is living in Civita for two months to write a book, and comes from an Italian family on her mother’s side. She is learning Italian and would like to speak it with you when she’s here.”

After many smiles, handshakes and, utterances of, “Piacere,” I left Josè at her street and walked to Il Nuovo upon assuring her that I could find my way alone. I enjoyed feeling the tourists’ inquisitive stares as I swept past them and up the stairs to relish in a new ritual: making lunch at home.

I sliced tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzerella to make caprese, then cubed pecorino and parmiaggiana to accompany my copacolla and slices of pizza bianca. Enjoying the sweet sunshine, I spent a leisurely hour consuming my lunch while reading an Italian magazine (dictionary in hand), finally reaping the reward of the many months of work it took to arrive here.

After lunch, I wished myself un buon Ferragosto, which I’ve chosen to consider as a festival of sweet harvest: a reward of time, food, wine, experience, learning and growth — and with it, a sense of wondering which parts of me will always remain in Civita.

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