fbpx
Home/Rod Dreher/The Miracle Of Montesiepi

The Miracle Of Montesiepi

Self recreating a Tarkovsky shot at the Abbey of San Galgano

[Readers, I do nearly all of my spiritual writing these days over at my subscription-only Substack newsletter site. I’m going to reproduce below a slightly edited version of a Substack entry from later this week, because I wrote a lot in this space last year about St. Galgano and Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Nostalghia. At the end of my Italian book tour this week, I made a pilgrimage to the site of St. Galgano’s conversion, and to some of the sites in that Tarkovsky film. Here’s what I told my Substack readers about it. — RD]

I am just back in the United States, having landed a short time ago in Dallas, and making a connection to Baton Rouge in a few hours. In fact, I wrote this newsletter on the flight back from Italy. I couldn’t get the in-flight wifi to work, so I was unable to send it earlier. Forgive me. I have either been out of wifi range this week in my travels, or had such full days that I was too tired to write. But, here we are now. Let me tell you what happened. I ask your indulgence too, because what follows contains information about stories – a hagiography and a movie – that you subscribers have read before. I recap them here for new subscribers, but also because I’m trying to find the meaning in these stories, and it helps for me to retell them.

There will be spoilers about the movie, but if you’ve been reading me on Nostalghia, you know them already. Besides, this is a difficult movie that most people won’t see, or, to be honest, will be too bored with to finish. I don’t blame you for that. Tarkovsky demands a lot of his audience.

On Sunday night, I met my friend Giovanni in Siena for dinner. His name is not actually Giovanni, but as he wants to remain anonymous in this account, I have christened him so. Giovanni lives in Italy with his family, and is a faithful Catholic. He agreed to meet me in Siena and accompany me on my pilgrimage to the church of San Galgano, and to the ruined Abbey named for the saint.

As we departed Siena in his dusty old SUV, Giovanni turned up the radio. He was playing old cuts by the Rolling Stones, my favorite band. I gazed out lustily at the rolling Tuscan landscape, singing along with “It’s Only Rock And Roll (But I Like It)” on my way to pray at the site of a miracle experienced by a medieval saint, and I thought: this is a very Rod Dreher moment.

In time we reached Montesiepi, the site in rural Tuscany, southwest of Siena, where San Galgano lived. Why did I come? Well, in the spring of 2020, I was struggling mightily with melancholy. I stumbled across the Andrei Tarkovsky movie Nostalghia, and was deeply struck by how much I related to the protagonist, an alienated Russian writer who is in Italy on a search for a sense of wholeness, of home.

In the film, the writer at one point skulks across the nave of a ruined medieval abbey. Here’s the clip — it’s in Italian. You hear the voice of a woman (presumably the Virgin) asking the Lord to speak to the poor writer, who is in a bad way. The Lord says the writer wouldn’t be able to hear him if he did. She asks the Lord to reveal himself to the writer, who needs to know that he is there. God says that he reveals himself every day, but the writer cannot see:

I was so deeply moved by this movie, which I began watching only minutes after going to confession, and my confessor telling me to return to prayer. It felt like a revelation. After the movie was over, I searched online to find out where that amazing medieval ruin is. It turns out that it’s the Abbey of San Galgano. Who was St. Galgano? He was a medieval Tuscan who had led a passionate life, until he had two visions of St. Michael the Archangel. In the second, the Archangel told him to give up his worldly life, and devote himself to God. Galgano reportedly said that it would be easier for him to put his sword through a rock than to give up his worldly passions. He brought his sword down on a rock next to him — and it went through, almost up to the hilt. He immediately converted, and became a hermit. You can still see the sword in the stone inside the church the medieval Tuscans built in his honor. Later, some of his Cistercian followers built the great abbey dedicated to Galgano, though it later was abandoned.

Now, you don’t have to believe that the sword in the stone story is true (though I do) to understand the symbolism. Here’s why I bring it up. After discovering that the abbey in Nostalghia was St. Galgano’s, I believe I finally understood why an Italian engraver, Luca Daum, came to my 2018 talk in Genoa and gave me this, from his hand:

It’s called “The Temptation of San Galgano”. Notice how the serpent who tempts him to abandon his sacrifice comes from inside his head. From the rock where his cross-like sword stands impaled, a symbol of Galgano’s sacrifice, grows the Tree of Life. When he approached me in Genoa that night after my Benedict Option talk, Luca told me he had been praying earlier that day, and that the Holy Spirit told him to come to my talk and give me that engraving.

I found Luca Daum’s email address and wrote to him about it. He responded, in part:

On what you confide in me about St. Galgano, I tell you what I have always known in words, but then on the practical side it always amazes and surprises me, and that is how God acts despite and despite us, but nevertheless often through us.

God is truly a good Father!

He loves us as we are but He wants to lead us to the Beauty of the Project that must be realized in us.

You have been caressed by God, dear Rod, through the image of an obscure Italian engraver, who only wanted to show you his esteem, and certainly did not imagine anything else.

God used this, as He could use anything else, to embrace and comfort you, and, I humbly say, me too. We are generally so fragile and consequently superficial that we find it hard to recognize God’s hand in our troubled daily lives.

Yet Providence is there and acts, and every now and then it shakes us more clearly.

Dear friend, I am very grateful to you for putting me aside from your moving experience, I will remember you with greater affection, for I feel more deeply and mysteriously bound to you in a common destiny.

After all this, I felt so reassured by my return to prayer, and challenged to deepen my faith in this apocalyptic age. So, my message to you is: Watch. Pray. Practice inner stillness. Prepare yourself to see and to hear. Something is about to be illuminated. The world is filled with mystery. Do not seek to know what cannot be known — just receive it with awe and gratitude, and with the resolution to change your life.

Here’s the thing: this is what gets me out of bed in the morning — the theophanic pilgrimage of life, and the hope of stumbling upon inbreakings of grace and revelation. I don’t write about that much here, but it’s what I live by, and think about a lot. I think I need to find a way to write a book about it.

The previous paragraphs are a version of something I wrote here last year, in the spring of 2020. Since then, I have been somewhat obsessed with San Galgano and me. What does God want me to learn from the story of San Galgano? How can I see it and hear it, and not be stranded in my own head, and my own anxiety, like the fictional Andrei? I knew that I would have to make a pilgrimage to pray there, and to ask God for the answer. Nostalghia begins with one of its characters, a sophisticated woman from Rome, visiting a rural Tuscan church and walking in on a kind of liturgy in which modestly dressed peasant women are praying to have children. It seems primitive to the Roman woman, who tells the inquisitive sacristan that she is just there to observe. The sacristan tells her that she will never get what her heart desires unless she kneels. But she won’t kneel, or perhaps can’t kneel in her fancy clothes.

The point here is that sacrifice matters spiritually. The sacristan was telling her that if she seeks the Lord and His will, she needs to humble herself before His altar. The other women – the prayerful ones – are doing just that. She asks the old sacristan something about the purpose of a woman’s life. He says that he is just a simple old man, but he suspects it is to have babies and nurture them. At that, the Roman woman leaves in a huff. The sacristan calls to her, saying, “There is more to life than being happy!”

A powerful line, that.

Well, I committed to make the sacrifice of a pilgrimage, seeking to penetrate the mystery of San Galgano for my life. With thoughts about the movie, the story of the saint, and what all of it has to do with the will of God for me, I made it to Montesiepi late Monday morning. Unlike the film’s fictional writer Andrei, the beauty of Tuscany was not lost on me. I had never been to this part of the world, and it was instantly and vividly clear to me why people rhapsodize about it. Gio and I stopped at a shack under the trees, near the top of Montesiepi, to eat lunch before going in:

Just beyond those trees, on the top of the hill, was the round church, and at its heart, the sword in the stone. The place I had been thinking about for over a year was a hundred yards away. I was afraid to think too much about it. After lunch, Gio went to fetch something out of his car, and I prayed silently, asking Jesus Christ to walk with me there and open my eyes. I also prayed to St. Galgano, St. Benedict, St. Genevieve, St. Alexei Mechev, St. Sergei Mechev, and St. Michael the Archangel to accompany me. And then, holding my prayer rope, Gio and I walked up the final bend of the road.

Here is what faced us:

This church was built in the 12th century, around the hut where St. Galgano lived for about a year between his conversion and his death. The saint’s conversion involved a vision he had of a round church built on the mountain where he surrendered his sword to the stone, and his life to Christ. Here is what the oratory church looks like from the plain down below the mountain:

 

Gio and I walked into the little church, and there it was: the miracle of Montesiepi. I stared at the sword for a couple of minutes, silently praying, glory to God. Italian scientists two decades ago studied the sword in the stone, perhaps expecting to disprove it. Instead, X-rays showed that the blade is indeed lodged deep in the rock, and the sword’s metal is of 12th century make, consistent with the story.

I fell to my knees and prayed for a while. Gio took this photo:

What did I pray for? I had some particular intentions in my heart that are too personal to reveal here, but the gist of it is seeking to do the will of God under conditions when His will for me is not clear. There must be a reason why God sent St. Galgano to me in that Genoese church in 2018. There must be a reason I didn’t have a clear idea why he might have done so until I watched that Tarkovsky movie in 2020. I believe that things like this have meaning. I not only believe it, I have lived it before. My prayer included asking God for the faith to be able to receive His answer for me, and to recognize His voice when He speaks. I also prayed to St. Galgano, asking him to join me in prayer, and to give me the strength to place my sword in the stone, whatever my sword is, and whatever the stone God shows me.

The sword represents Galgano’s passions, which he sacrificed to God accidentally. Remember, he was trying to demonstrate to Jesus that he could not leave his life behind to follow Him. Can you imagine? Here was a young man so intensely wedded to the world that even when God Himself appears to him, he wants to argue. I think Galgano must be the patron of hot-headed, obstreperous young men who do not want to surrender their wills. I was like that as a young man, though not violent like Galgano. I loved the world, and even after I was confident that Jesus was real, and that He wanted me, I resisted it, because I thought it would be impossible for me to turn my back on the world. This is why I don’t believe people when they say that if God just showed Himself to them in a miracle or something like it, they would believe in Him, and change their lives. It’s hard to leave the world. Most of us spend a lifetime dying to it. Me, in my early 20s, I knew God was real, but I was in a real Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet phase of my life.

Still, I don’t know that I would have been as hard-headed as Galgano Guidotti was, arguing with Jesus like that, and unsheathing my sword in the presence of Almighty God, His mother, and the Apostles. But that’s what Galgano did, and the evidence of what Christ did with Galgano’s impudence is still there for us all to see inside that little country church off the beaten path in Tuscany. It is a symbol of a passionate young man’s mountaintop sacrifice to His Lord. Galgano gave Jesus everything. Though he came from a family of means, he built a hut next to the sword in the stone (or perhaps surrounding the sword in the stone), and lived there as a hermit for the rest of his short life. The glory of God was made powerfully manifest in the penitent Galgano, who worked miracles and healings, according to the Church’s investigation.

I did not have any woo-woo experiences in prayer there, nor did I expect any (though I did, oddly, feel the presence of St. Michael the Archangel, who figures powerfully in Galgano’s conversion, but whom I haven’t thought of much in my analysis). Finally, I stood up and stepped into the side chapel, where the church has kept on display the mummified hands of a vandal who tried to kill the saint, but who was killed by the wolves who lived near Galgano, and protected him.

A sign below the hands says that radiocarbon dating showed that these hands come from the 12th century, just as the tradition says.

Then I returned to the sword in the stone, fell to my knees again, and offered 100 prayers on my prayer rope. I tried to clear my mind so that my prayer would come from my heart, and be pure. After that, I stood and beheld the concentric circles in the church’s dome:

Perfection within perfection within perfection.

If Gio had not been with me, I would have stayed in the cool of that round 12th century brick church all afternoon, praying and marveling. Maybe I will have the opportunity to do that in the future. Having made the sacrifice of my visit and my prayers, and confident that He will answer me in His own time, and fashion, Gio and I descended the mountain, climbed into his SUV, and drove the short distance across the plain to the ruined Abbey.

Christians have been coming to these places on pilgrimage for over 800 years. It felt so good to be in their number. Inside the nave of the remains of the abbey church, Gio and I talked about what it must have been like in the High Middle Ages and early Renaissance periods, when the stones around us absorbed Gregorian chants from choirs of Cistercian monks living there. How cruel is the passing of time! This once-beautiful church is now just a shell of itself, yet the shell too is beautiful, though in a different way. It is an instantiation of the medieval past in the present day. What is it saying to us? What is God saying to us through its enduring presence? Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? It was in this church, after all, that God and the Holy Virgin had their pained dialogue about Andrei’s unwillingness to see and hear what God was trying to say to him.

I made the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel the cover of The Benedict Option because it appears in the final scene of Terence Malick’s film To The Wonder as a sign of God’s constant presence in history, calling us home, calling us to repentance. If Andrei had gone to the Abbey of San Galgano to pray instead of to observe, might he have opened the door to God? Unlike Eugenia in the earlier church, he doesn’t even observe; as we see Andrei move across the abbey nave (I’ve cued the clip here to that scene), he is not looking up at the glories of God around him, but has his gaze fixed firmly on the ground, and is smoking.

You can see why God cannot help Andrei: Andrei needs Him, but is not looking for Him. Andrei is not even walking towards what would have been the altar – in this case, a symbol of God – but only in a just-passing-through way, across the nave. God could have manifested himself in an extraordinary way, as He did with San Galgano, but this only very rarely happens, and for reasons we can’t explain. The ordinary way is the way most of us came to Him, and maintain our relationship with Him: through prayer and spiritual discipline. San Galgano’s case is one of a young man who was not seeking, yet found. For the rest of us, we have to seek – and we have to sacrifice.

In the movie, Andrei finally does make a sacrifice, as a sign of solidarity with his friend Domenico, the Holy Fool. Domenico asked Andrei to do something that he, Domenico, has long wanted to do, but has never been able to manage: walk from one side to another, across the ancient thermal bath at Bagno Vignoni, with a lit candle. It’s a seemingly senseless ritual, but the madman – who is alienated from the world because of his morbid obsession with an apocalyptic future – asks it of Andrei. Just as Andrei is about to leave Rome for the flight back to Russia, he gets news of Domenico’s death, and asks his driver to take him to Bagno Vignoni so he can carry out the ritual for Domenico.

It is a real sacrifice. First, Andrei really wants to get home to Russia, but now he’s delaying his return to do a favor for a crazy man he barely knows. And Bagno Vignoni is almost three hours’ drive from Rome. But off they go. The water has been drained from the thermal bath, which allows Andrei to walk across without getting wet.

This scene, which is the climax of Nostalghia, is one of the most famous in film history. It’s nine and a half minutes, uncut, showing a man walking across a pool with a lit candle, trying to keep it from going out. The concentration this requires of Andrei (and of Oleg Yankovsky, the actor who plays him) is total. It’s a riveting scene because you are drawn into the drama of the moment: will he make it? At last, Andrei arrives there, and plants the candle of the side of the pool, as an offering. He has done this for no reason other than as an act of love for the poor madman. For the first time in this film, Andrei has forgotten himself, forgotten his obsession with the past, and is thrust into total absorption of the present moment out of compassion for Domenico. His placing the candle on the side of the pool recalls the scores of candles placed next to the altar in the church at the film’s beginning, by the women who are there to pray for fertility.

Then Andrei is seized by a heart attack, and dies.

Yankovsky, the actor who plays Andrei, later told an interviewer how Tarkovsky prepared him for that scene:

I had just arrived in Rome. I was met by Tarkovsky, who I knew only slightly. That in itself was a miracle in those days: I suddenly found myself in Rome–not as a tourist, I had come to work, “out of professional necessity.” To act not just anywhere, for not just anybody and not “just to get to Rome,” but for Tarkovsky. He had invited me to play the leading role in Nostalghia, his first “non-Russian” film, without any screen tests.

After a short and somewhat aimless walk through the narrow side streets of Rome, we finally sat down at a table outside a small cafe on the Piazza di Spagna. It was midday, warm and quiet; spring was in the air.

“Oleg, know what,” began Andrei in a roundabout way. “I had this idea of filming a man asleep in one continuous sequence, without any editing–from the moment he falls asleep at night to the moment he wakes up in the morning. Imagine what a subtle and grandiose range of human emotions would be reflected on his face in that time! Especially if he dreams.”

“I’ll have dreams in the film?” I cautiously inquired. “Oh, no,” said Andrei and waved his hand, even looking rather irritated at my question. “This has nothing to do with dreams. Okay, I’ll put it a different way. The thing is, could you–yes! yes! you, Oleg!–display an entire human life in one shot, without any editing, from beginning to end, from birth to the very moment of death?”

“Me?” I foolishly asked, not knowing what to say. “I don’t really know. Never crossed my mind. You mean, that’s what I’ve got to do?”

“Well, yes,” said Andrei. “We tried to find you a simple scene to begin with. Since you’ll have to act the role in Italian–and that’s difficult when you don’t know Italian–we chose this scene without words for you, an entire human life from birth to death. In fact the leading character promises a deranged man he will carry a burning candle through the waters of the Saint Catherine pool, and in so doing heal him.”

“Why a candle?” I queried. “Because of the flame, the unprotected fire. Remember the candles in Orthodox churches, how they flicker. The very essence of things, the spirit, the spirit of fire. Well, as for the pool,” continued Andrei, “They drained it unexpectedly. Foul-smelling bubbles rise from the ancient lime oozing with mud and slime and burst on the bottom of the pool, then the leading character–you, Oleg–lights a candle. It’s a thin, uncertain, weak flame, and you cover this flame with your hand, the hand of a strong, grown man. And you walk across the foul bed of the pool, trying not to slip or stumble, and all your will is concentrated on one thing: to save this weak flame, to keep it burning. But it goes out and you return to where you started, and again you light this uncertain, quivering flame, once again you shield it with your palm and set off. You are more than halfway along the path you must cover to bring the miracle into being. But the flame goes out again. You feel your last strength is leaving you and you will be unable to find the spiritual or physical strength to start over again. But you do. You return to the place you already set out from twice before, light the candle again, cover it with your hand and venture out on this endless journey, carefully picking your way. You walk on and carry the candle to the end. Then you leave it at the edge of the pool, understanding that not only has a human life been saved, but that now a hand will always be found to protect the flame when you are no longer there. This is when the leading character understands he has carried out the most important task in his life. He slowly sinks to the foul-smelling bottom of the pool and dies.”

“You see,” and Andrei suddenly changed to the familiar form of “you” in Russian, “if you can do that, if it really happens and you carry the candle to the end–in one shot, straight, without cinematic conjuring tricks and cut-in editing–then maybe this act will be the true meaning of my life. It will certainly be the finest shot I ever took–if you can do it, if you can endure to the end.”

I could hardly speak: this was some “simple scene!” “Fine, I’ll try, do my best.”

For three days Italian workmen laid rails across the bottom of Saint Catherine’s pool under instructions from Tarkovsky. For three days Tarkovsky rehearsed the panorama with the technical crew, as if he hadn’t noticed me aimlessly wandering along the edge of the pool. Finally the fourth day dawned–the day for the shoot. They dressed me in a suit, made me up and helped me jump to the bottom of the dry pool, where Tarkovsky was waiting for me.

“You walk from over there, to that point there.” He pointed down the rails. “This is where the candle goes out the first time. You go back, relight the candle, and get this far.” Andrei showed me the place I had to get to the second time. “Here the wind blows it out again. Then you find the strength to return yet again, and the third time you get to the end. No need to rehearse it,” he said and kissed me. “Of course I could help you by editing, cut-ins–but there’s no need. I feel there’s no need. You’ll do it. Good luck, good luck. And remember: we’ve only got one take.”’

I heard the command “Shoot!” as if through water, lit the candle, saw the thin, flickering flame and cupped it with my hand. I carried on right to the end, sank to the bottom of the pool and died. The candle was still alight on the edge. Applause came from every direction. I had done everything I promised him.

Later I heard applause in Cannes, Moscow, Tokyo, and Venice, but it wasn’t important any more. The main thing was that I found the strength to do everything then, back there.

What could Tarkovsky have meant by that? Here’s what I think: that every life is meant to be a sacrifice. That it takes great care and attention to make our way through the perilous journey of life without the flickering flame of life going out. But there is no way to live a meaningful life without sacrifice. Sacrifice will not make us happy, necessarily – but there are more important things in life than our happiness.

The final image of Nostalghia shows Andrei in the nave of the ruined abbey, with his dog and his dacha behind him. It is a symbol of completeness. In death, all things were restored to Andrei. He has entered into eternity, where time is one. The holy fool has written on his wall: 1 + 1 = 1. Could this mean that when we cease to live in linear time, all the scattered parts of our lives will be unified and returned to us? Perhaps Tarkovsky, who was an Orthodox Christian (though at times he claimed to be agnostic), is saying that the ultimate sacrifice we all must make is dying to ourselves – and that we begin to do that with holy sacrifices. It’s hard to say. This is a difficult film. I’ve seen it three times, and I still haven’t unraveled all its mysteries.

San Galgano died to himself so he could live in Christ. Every Christian is called to die to himself to that he can be born again in Christ. We spend the rest of our lives on a pilgrimage of sacrifice so that we can continue to die to our worldly passions, and make way for the light of Christ to burn more brightly within us.

What does all of this have to do with me, though? That is what I prayed to know. My sense is that it is going to involve abandoning happiness. Dr. Silvester Krcmery, whom I wrote about inLive Not By Lies, wrote in his memoir of his experience as a political prisoner of the Communists, that he had to resolve going into prison that he would never pity himself, that he would regard all the sacrifices he made there as gifts to Jesus Christ, and further, that he would count it a privilege to suffer for Christ. Me, I am so far from being able to do this that it’s almost a joke.

But what if that is what I’m going to be asked to do? What if God is preparing me? It’s frightening to think about – but not as frightening as missing the call of Our Lord, or, in my own weakness, refusing it.

Gio and I talked about these things as we walked around the ruins of San Galgano Abbey. We also talked about how seeing miracles, like a sword in a stone, are worthless if not answered by repentance, that is, by a turning away from the path we were on, and re-orienting ourselves to Christ.

Walking back to our car in the parking lot, I had to laugh at the shadow cast by the security camera. It looks like the hilt of Galgano’s sword in the stone:

As we drove towards Montalcino for a visit to a wine producer, Gio and I resumed our discussion of deep spiritual things. I couldn’t possibly begin to recall them here. One thing that lingers in my mind, though, is our discussion of the deep disorder of the world today – of the loss of Logos. In Christian thought, Christ himself is the incarnate Logos, which is to say the principle of order that permeates the cosmos. The loss of Christianity in the West is not simply a matter of losing our religion. For us, it has become too a matter of losing the belief that there is any Logos at all in the world. That is to say, we in the modern West have lost the belief that there is any order inherent in Nature. If there is a natural order, then there must be limits to the exercise of our will. This we reject in a million ways. We have set ourselves up as the Masters of the Universe, as the imposer of Logos onto chaos, especially through technology. We have abandoned belief is transcendentals. Our culture-makers are training us to despise the past because if the past has any relevance to us, it puts limits on our future – and that is intolerable today.

All of this is to say that Gio and I talked about whether or not we really are at the End of the World. He suggested to me that I watch a Jonathan Pageau video (“That man and his brother are touched by God,” Gio said) in which Pageau explains the meaning of 666. If I recall Gio correctly, he said that in the ancient world, six is the number of perfection. Three times six is the number of a man who divinizes perfection. The Antichrist will come as a man who will present himself as one who can keep us safe from chaos and sacrifice. He will use technology to make us safe by exercising total control. The cost will be our liberty. The cost will be our souls.

Well, after that, it was a pleasure to arrive at a Tuscan winemaker, Talenti. The small parking lot of this winery was bounded by vineyards. Here it is:

Look at how fat these Sangiovese grapes were, ready for the harvest, which was going to take place the next day.

We did a tasting of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino, the wines produced in this region. Brunello is considered to be the most distinguished Italian wine, I’m told (and not just by the man pouring it for us). It was so rich and luscious. We both bought two bottles — not cheap, but this wine is very special — then headed to Bagno Vignoni to look at the thermal pool that had figured in Tarkovsky’s film.

The bath has been there since Roman times. Even St. Catherine of Siena took the waters there. We arrived in the town, and found it to be far more touristy than we expected. It reminded me of Carmel, Calif., to be honest. When we found the bath, what had seemed mysterious in Tarkovsky just looked like a swimming pool – one within which the owners had placed a ridiculous metal sculpture of some sort.

Well, we took pictures and left quickly. It looks much nicer in real life, but much more alluring in Tarkovsky’s movie.

We settled for the night in Montalcino, a lovely little Tuscan hill town. I tell you, Italian hill towns are not made for fat guys like me. The gradients of the cobblestone streets are quite challenging.

The next morning, I went down to a café and met Gio for coffee. We settled the bill at the hotel, and then took off for Rome, and his family home. He and his wife and young children live about 45 minutes outside of Rome, in a house filled with books. The kids were a bit shy with me at first, but then warmed up considerably. They were marvelous children, really amazing, and it made me genuinely nostalgic for the days when my kids were so young.

After supper out on the patio, Gio told his kids that it was time for evening prayer. He invited me to join them, which of course I was pleased to do. As Gio’s wife and I dawdled outside, he called to me to come quickly to see something.

The children had been playing with toy swords earlier, and had laid them neatly in front of their home altar, as if in sacrifice. These swords have the same hilt design as San Galgano’s:

Gio smiled broadly, and so did I. God was winking at us.

It was so beautiful to watch this family pray together, and then to see the children fall on their knees at the end so their father could bless them. At bedtime, the youngest one, a toddler who doesn’t yet speak, held up her arms in a signal for me to pick her up. I did, and stood there in her bedroom holding her on my shoulder as she rested, and I experienced the old familiar feeling of a child growing heavier as sleep overtakes them. As I swayed rhythmically, remembering somehow how to help a little one sleep, I whispered to the little girl’s mom, “I cannot wait to be a grandfather!” I meant it, too.

Gio, his wife, and I finished one of the bottles of Brunello I bought, then it was time for us to go to bed too. Morning came too early, but there was a flight to catch. As Gio drove me to the airport, I praised him for the way he and his wife were raising their children, especially the family prayer. We talked for a while about the Catholic Church scandal, and what a mess the Catholic Church is. This is something that grieves Gio a great deal. He knows something too about the Orthodox Church in Russia under Bolshevik captivity, and said to me that having read Live Not By Lies, he thinks a lot about how faithful Russian Christians had to live while knowing that they could not trust their priests or bishops, as the bishops (for sure) were KGB.

Gio said that we in the West, whatever our confession, have to figure out how to live like that. Our religious leaders aren’t agents of the secret police, he said, but they are far too often agents of a corrupt and unchristian worldview. In any case, we have to figure out how to live out the faith, and pass it on to our kids, without being able to count on them. Yes, I told him, that is true – and the way you and your wife pray with your children at night is doing exactly that. It did my heart so much good to see, I told him.

As we drove, he played an American song for me, “Spanish Pipedream”, a tune by John Prine that I had never heard. He told me this pretty much is how he tries to live his life:

What a great traveling companion Gio was at the end of my trip. He was prayerful, intellectually deep, and has great taste in American music. It was a very good pilgrimage. Now I await word from Our Lord about what he wants me to do with this life he has given to me, and to which I am bound to offer back to him.

Final image from ‘Nostalghia’

[Reader, this is the kind of thing you get at my Substack, about three times a week. Five dollars per month to subscribe, or $50 per year. Click here to do so. — RD]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles