For me, as a Benedictine oblate and a rather halfhearted do-it-yourself unofficial hermitess, the whole town is a monastery. St. Philip Neri was said to carry around with him a little bag of copper pennies. Asked why, he pulled out a beautifully shiny coin, and said that it reminded him what community life was for; all that bumping up against each other as we amble along shines us up nicely. I live alone, but I have constant streams of guests and every day, I walk down to the monastery for the Office and am greeted by nearly everyone I pass.
The guys at the garden centre deliver my tools and pots and bags of soil because they know I don’t have a car. In March, Fabio from the ferramenta brought up the trestle table and shelves for my studio in his car and stayed to watch the solar eclipse through my pinhole camera. The baker and his wife have invited me to dinner next week when they take their post-Christmas holiday. On a sunny, chilly New Year’s day the beautiful and stylish Teresa who runs the antiques shop and has been painstakingly renovating our side altars, greeted me in the street outside her shop with a hug and heartfelt “Auguri, buon anno!” She wanted me to help her with some lines of English in a play she will be in. Luca, the realtor stopped me in the street the other day asking how my latest article turned out and when could he read it online – practicing his reading English. Michele, the waiter at the enoteca told me where to go to get my bike fixed and offered to take me to the local emergency room when he heard I had been hit by a car (nothing damaged but the bike’s brakes.) I’m forgiven regularly for my crummy Italian. I have never lived in a town where I am known by so many people. I’m a straniera, but I’ve been adopted into the Nursini family.
As I was tramping down the hill this morning to join in on Br. Gregory’s big day, I totted it up: 20 years in Victoria, population about 125,000 in the ‘70s; 11 long, miserable damp and grey years among the miserable, damp and grey-minded hipsters of Vancouver, population about 2 million; 4 rather jolly years in Halifax Nova Scotia and the obligatory-for-Canadians 5 years in Toronto. 40 years in cities, all together. 40 years in which I unconsciously absorbed the modern urban message; sneak through life as anonymously as you can, be noticed by no one, attach yourself to no one, expect nothing from anyone, be a part of nothing and don’t get too attached because no one is going to stick around – everyone around you is transient and you are ultimately on your own. Cities do not exist to create community. I’m not sure what they are for in a positive sense, but I know from long experience that they provide an ideal place to hide for people who fear commitment and accountability. It’s a way of life I’ve had my fill of.
I’ve been reading Hilary for about a dozen years now, and I will say without hesitation that this is my favorite thing she’s ever written. It is obvious to me that her new home in the Appenine mountains — and the people she has discovered there — are changing her for the better. There is an effortless happiness, a joie de vivre in this relatively short essay that may, if you’re not careful, turn you green with envy. There’s been a decided shift in her approach to things, with a lot less time spent as a writer on the Internet, and a lot more time spent as a human being living life in the real world. As I wonder how many hours I’ve spent at my desk today tinkering away at websites, I am not ashamed to tell you how appealing that is.
It’s a wonderful life she’s found — something truly special — and I’m very glad she did.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.