Me and the Italian God | KATARINA WEST

Me and the Italian God

It’s finding God that’s problematic for me.

I thought that I’d start 2015 by blogging about Life’s big truths. Such as God.

Unfortunately I don’t have much to say about God’s existence, except that I know He’s out there somewhere. I also know that people much wiser and more erudite than me have tried to argue for and against His existence, and if this is the Big Question haunting you, my blog is the last thing you should be reading right now.

No, it’s finding God that’s problematic for me.

None of this would matter if I still lived in Finland, my native country. Because up there God is reserved, even shy. Just like the Finns are. He doesn’t say much, and what He says is perfectly in tune with the era of smart phones, Lady Gaga and Desperate Housewives. He understands that most people plough through their lives without giving much thought to His existence. It’s OK – He forgives you. He’s Lutheran and pragmatic, after all.

But I live in Italy. Here plenty of people I know are practising (and I do mean practising) believers.

This God is a completely different kettle of fish.  For starters, He’s both Catholic and Italian, and that means that He is neither reserved nor shy. In some sense, He’s like an Italian mamma – caring, fussing and a bit possessive, loving you like nobody else does.

So it bothers me that I haven’t found God, Italian or otherwise. It feels like everyone else has passed the exam, except me.

During Sunday Mass I scrutinise the country folk, praying on their knees, and feel a pang of envy, because something in their behaviour tells me that their devotion is as sincere as it is simple. And I can’t help throwing furtive glances at the confessional, the same way I threw furtive glances at kissing couples when I was ten years-old. Then, like now, there was something mysterious and ineffable going on, but I just couldn’t figure out what it was.

At times I’ve even tried to find the Italian God. Many years ago, for example, I went to see a nun here in Chianti. I was determined to sort out this God business, and to be like everyone else.

The nun in question lived in an isolated hilltop convent with a cloistered façade and faded frescoes showing from between the pillars. A remarkable sense of peace pervaded everywhere. It was hard to imagine that somewhere people were suffering and worrying and dying and rushing around. It seemed like another world altogether.

I, however, was anything but serene. All I could think about was the fact that soon I would have to talk with a nun.

A real nun!

The Italians have it so easy, they’re used to the particularities of the Catholic Church. It’s easy for them to say, ‘Good morning, Monsignore’, or, ‘It seems like the summer has finally arrived, Madre’. But try to do the same if you grew up with the tight-lipped Finnish God, and kept reading Nietzsche as an over-weight teenager, deciding that God – any kind of God – was dead. Try to be normal, when you have never had any contact with the women and men of the cloth.

And that’s why meeting a nun now made me both curious and uneasy. Pregnant women used to have the same effect on me in my teens: my head was ringing with one word only (SEX! SEX! SEX!) and because I tried not to glance at the protruding stomach I always ended up staring at it.

After a few minutes of loitering I had no other choice but to walk to a door at the far end of the cloister. In front of it stood a wrought-iron grid with a wooden sign hanging from it. On the plate the sisters had written with elaborate, old-fashioned calligraphy Suonare per favore.

I rang the bell and waited. Soon I heard footfalls clicking against the stone floor. The door opened and an old woman looked inquiringly at me through the grid. She was wearing a brown nun’s habit and thick spectacles that enlarged her eyes to extraordinary proportions. I gave her a nervous spiel, and she smiled, nodding every now and then, unable to get a word in edgeways.

Finally I had nothing more to say.

‘I’m sister Maria,’ she then said. ‘You were supposed to talk with me.’

I nodded, nervously. The only sister Maria I had thus far known was Maria from The Sound of Music, the pretty twenty-something who ran away to sing to the mountains whenever the Mother Abbess turned her eyes from her. This Maria was some forty years older, and I doubt she had ever run away to sing on the hills. But she had gentle eyes, the kind that couldn’t harm a single living creature.

She took me to a small, whitewashed room. We sat down. She looked at me, smiling.

‘What was it that you wanted to talk about?’ she asked.

‘I don’t know how to find God,’ I said, feeling like a complete idiot.

‘There is only one way,’ she said. ‘God is inside you. Many people believe that –’

Before she could continue, I fished a Dictaphone out of my bag. For an awkward moment we were both silent as I checked that the batteries worked and rewound the cassette to the beginning. Then I took out a few pencils, gave them a final sharpening, and placed them onto an empty chair beside me in order of length so that the longest was closest to me. When that was done, I placed a box of mint pastilles next on the chair, as I hate people who cough during lectures and plays, and a brand new notebook on my lap. I opened it on the first page on to which the evening before I’d copied all the main points of my last-minute religious studies.

I hadn’t understood much of what I’d read, but I had Googled God and found some pretty impressive quotations from Wikipedia. Like, I believe in the incomprehensibility of God (de Balzac), I show you doubt, to prove that faith exists (Browning), Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind (Einstein), and The truth shall make you free (the Bible).

Finally I opened my coat, assumed a comfortable position, and smiled back at her.

I was ready for the truth.

‘Fire away,’ I said enthusiastically, forgetting that I was talking to a nun. ‘I’m all set.’

But instead of starting a philosophical discourse, she stared at my Dictaphone as if not quite knowing what to say.

‘You know,’ she said hesitantly. ‘This doesn’t have to be a university lecture.’

She gave me a timid smile.

Flushing, I shoved the notebook, pencils and the Dictaphone into my bag. The box of mint pastilles fell from my hands, and soon the floor around us was dotted with shiny whitish drops. My back hot with embarrassment, I bent down to pick them up, but just as I did so that one blasted word was ringing in my head. SEX SEX SEX SEX SEX SEX SEX. And no sooner had those words flashed in my mind, I realised that I had thought them in the company of a nun. A nun. I was so shocked I couldn’t even pick up the mint pastilles any more.

Why, oh why, had I thought about sex right now, in the company of a pious old lady?

You dirty old lecher, said a voice inside my head. You’re a danger to this poor woman! And others too!

Will you please shut up? I hissed to the voice. I’ve got to concentrate here. This is important!

I realised immediately that the last sentence had been a serious mistake, for at once my head was resounding with ungodly thoughts. A part of me was crying desperately, but the more I despaired, the louder the voices became. For a minute or so I couldn’t think clearly for the cacophony inside my head.

All this time, sister Maria smiled sweetly at me.

‘Maybe you could tell me –’ she started.

YOU LOUSY SINNER! IF SHE ONLY KNEW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING!

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘What did you say again?’

AND YOU HAD PREMARITAL SEX!

‘I said that maybe you could tell – ’

AND YOU’VE TOLD EVERYONE YOU’RE PRO-CHOICE!

Sister Maria was still speaking. ‘ – to find Him with your heart and not with your head, and to understand –’

AND YOU’VE READ NIETZSCHE!

‘– have to let Him come close to you,’ she said.

AND THE GOD DELUSION!

‘Oh no,’ I said aloud, my voice angry. ‘I have never even touched that book!’

‘I beg your pardon,’ sister Maria said. ‘Touched what book?’

‘Sorry,’ I said, blushing. ‘What I meant is that I haven’t read the Bible enough. You know, the Book of Books.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ she said soothingly. ‘When I was – ’

By now the voices had gone crazy. INQUISITION! they screamed. MARTIN LUTHER! FEMALE PRIESTHOOD! CRUSADES! GAY MARRIAGE!

It was a horrible, horrible situation. I could not look at her. At some point I began to cough so that sister Maria wouldn’t notice the turmoil inside me, but the result of that was that soon I was coughing wildly, tears running down my cheeks. After what seemed a hellish eternity sister Maria finally escorted me to my car.

She looked content. We shook hands. Or she shook mine. I hardly dared to touch hers.

‘Do come to talk with me whenever you want,’ she said, smiling warmly at me.

I nodded faintly. My head was in a shambles, like a battleground after intense fighting. Most of the voices had been slain and were now lying on the barren ground. I was dog-tired.

‘It’s always a pleasure to talk with creative people like you. We had such a nice chat, now didn’t we?’

A nice chat!

You bet.

But there was something in sister Maria that made me return a few times.

We sat in the white-washed room and talked about God, but somehow it didn’t work. We tried, we really did. I put questions to her, and she replied to them the best she could. Yet for some reason I felt that she wasn’t answering the questions I had asked, and when that feeling took over, my mind started to wander and I was no longer listening to her.

Still, I always felt oddly alive when I left the convent. I don’t know why this was so, maybe because there was a rare variety of innocence in her, the kind that is neither sickly sweet nor self-righteous. It was as though she was less contaminated by life than most people, and the childlike joy of life, of being alive, was so infectious that it made me happy too.

At times I didn’t drive away immediately but sat watching the chain of hills, undulating as far as the horizon.

Those where the moments when I knew that He was out there, somewhere.

And someday, somehow, I would find my God.

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