Mastery of Mystery–ashes, old friends, and the faith

We arrive in San Marino on Ash Wednesday afternoon. To get here we’ve traveled all night and through most of this day. We unload bags, turn on the water, and raise the heat in the apartment. Tizi makes a bed. We pull sheets off a couple chairs so we have a seat in the morning. Early evening we go for a walk. First night here, it’s important to stay awake as long as we can. Down below the apartment, we walk  the road that will take us to the tunnel that will take us to the cemetery. We’ll get there eventually. But not tonight. 

A few minutes before 8:00 the church bells ring, calling the faithful to Ash Wednesday service. Tizi says, Let’s go. The smudge on the forehead is not part of my tradition, if I can be said to have a tradition, but I go. 

We go. To the church where she was baptized. 

For years on Ash Wednesday, when I was still teaching, on my way to work if I remembered I would stop for ashes at the Catholic church near our house. Students, my Arab students in particular, would notice the mark on my forehead, and I would take the opportunity to explain a little about Lent, about the forty days, and liken it to Ramadan, their period of fasting. “Why do you fast?” the American kids would ask the Arab kids during Ramadan. “To remember the poor,” they would say. I always had the impression that they were proud of their fast–they struggled with it, physically, you could see that–but they were invested in it. They were lifted up. 

This night the church in Serravalle is full. The creaky old wood pews are full. Chairs have been set up next to them. People stand along the walls, waiting for ashes to go. An usher shows us to a couple chairs. 

The service is long. There are readings and a long homily. Standing next to the organist, a nun sings into a microphone. She has a little girl voice. Coming in, I thought we would queue up, walk down the aisle, get the ashes, and hit the road. Not tonight. Tizi tunes into the liturgy, as she is able to do. I do not. It’s in Italian, after all, not my language of worship. I don’t know their hymns. And I don’t know yet, in any real sense, the experience of faith. I am not fluent in faith. 

Every now and then, when she has to, she nudges me awake with her shoulder.

One year we were in Venice on Ash Wednesday and went to St. Mark’s for ashes. I was pretty geeked. I thought, Now these are going to be some premium ashes. Gimme the smudge. 

It took a while. There were red caps at the altar. They had a lot to say. It was a service, but it felt like so much more than that at St. Mark’s, the great Byzantine temple with the mosaics and the undulating marble floor miraculously afloat on the swampy ground beneath it. You don’t mind waiting. You feel small, you feel a sense of awe, which is the whole point of such a place, the way you feel small and you feel awe standing at the ocean shore or at the edge of the Grand Canyon. So it was okay. 

When we finally got up there that night in Venice, and I held out my head for the smudge, instead of making the sign of the cross on my forehead, the priest measured out and poured a quarter teaspoon of ashes on top of my head, in my hair, and sent me on my way.

I wanted to be a marked man in Venice. I know that’s ostentation, which is probably a sin. But still, it was a letdown. That night, if I was marked, it was just between me and God.  

This first night that we’re back in San Marino, when it’s my turn for ashes in the church of Serravalle, it’s the same thing. On my head, in my hair. 

Walking back to our seats, I see a few familiar faces. Hey, there’s Marina. Hi! And hey, there’s Checco and Lilliana. Hi, you guys.  A small wave, I hope, is okay.  

“So,” I whisper to Tizi, back in our seats, “now we fast.” She nods and smiles. 

Fast like an Italian.

I know that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins–it’s worse, I think, than ostentation–but somehow the Italians sidestep that difficulty. They can do Lent and indulge at the same time. The bakery up the street, called La Baguette, more pasticiaria than bakery, calls to us, offers sweet delights. Last year as St. Joseph’s day approached–Italy’s Father’s Day on March 19– we discovered zeppole up at La Baguette. Picture a round pastry, a tawny hockey puck, a cream puff pumped full of light yellow pastry cream, dusted with powdered sugar, topped with a dark cherry. I wish they made them the size of a frisbee.  

Within 24 hours of being marked with ashes, Tizi and I split a zeppole. We split one. This is our sacrifice, a gesture of the fast, having half a zeppole rather than a whole one.

“We really shouldn’t eat these things,” I say.

She takes a sip from her cappuccino. “Sure we should.”

“We could make zeppole our Lenten sacrifice.”

Another bite of zeppole, another sip. “That would be crazy.”

“Do you think Checco eats Zeppole during Lent?”

“Of course,” she says. “These are so good.”

I make a mental note: Ask Checco. 

Checco (pronounced KEH-ko), short for Francesco, is a celebrated local poet. He writes, publishes, and performs in San Marino dialect. His project, his marvelous contribution to local culture, is preservation of the local language, as well as celebrating local traditions and experience. Before he performs a poem, reciting from memory, he reminds the audience of word origins and figures of speech, connecting them to daily life, to the rhythms of the seasons and work, to the nature of family life. His work is poetry. But it’s also history and anthropology. Along with a great sense of humor he has a fine ear and a great heart. At his readings I’ve seen him bring Tizi to tears. I listen politely, eagerly, but because it’s dialect, I understand next to nothing.

His house is on the route of one of our walks, up the hill behind our building. An uphill walk smacks of penance, so we go for it. On the gate in front of his house Checco attaches copies of poems he has printed, both in dialect and in Italian. I can sort of read the Italian. 

Today, a Sunday, we’ve skipped church and walked. On the gate Checco has posted a poem that asks what God was up to when he created the world, “il cielo, il mare, la terra, l’aria, e gli astri, il sole, la luna, le stelle che sono cosí belle da vedere e contemplare.” A list, obviously, the heavens, the sea, the earth and the air, the sun and moon, and the stars–all so beautiful to see and to contemplate… “Mille generazioni! E si nasce e si muore da migliaiia di anni…” So many generations of us. We are born and we die, over thousands of years.  

And what for?

You meet people of faith who just seem to have a vibe. With God, I mean. They don’t throw it in your face. They just have it. It’s like having an ear for music, or they’re good at math. In Checco’s case when he recites, you see a concentration of heart and mind that’s so human and so beautiful. To see him in church, to hear him talk about “il Signore,” you see he gets it.

My nephew, gone a decade now, was like that. He had the vibe. When I sat next to him in church, after communion he would come back to the pew and recite his prayers, aloud, praying for people he loved, his friends, his teachers, his family. You thought, well, if there’s a God, he’s inside Joey right now.  As I listened, I thought, Pray for me too, Joey.

Checco writes, along with beauty “c’é dolore, le carestie, la fame, e la terre ogni tanto trema sotto i piedi!” There’s pain and suffering in the world, famine. Every so often the earth trembles beneath our feet.  

Does it ever.

“You achieve,” Adam Gopnik writes in The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery, “something that, if not exactly mastery, is at least an actual accomplishment, a happy patch, a bit of [mental] software that you had never had before.” Gopnik is talking about the ability to draw, developing his hand at painting, one of those skills that some of us–me, for example–say that we absolutely do not have. Knowing yourself is knowing what you think you lack, knowing that you are tone deaf, or art deaf, or math-less, or dance-less–you name it, there is a skill, an art, a capacity that eludes you. I wish I could ——– (fill in the blank). Gopnik celebrates “repetition and perseverance and a comical degree of commitment,” suggesting hopefully that breakthroughs are not out of reach. 

“Having (fill in the blank) now, however poorly you install it, makes yours an expanded and extended mind and body, a significantly different self than the one you were assigned at birth.”

When I read this, I think of standing on the sidewalk outside the church in Serravalle that night, talking to Marina, talking to Checco and Lilliana, marveling at how in acquiring a second language, you acquire a second self, a persona that is constituted by the grammar and sounds and rhythms and gesticulations of the new language. I never thought of myself as good at languages. My last year as an undergraduate, I took some French and fell on my face. I could pass a grammar test (just barely), but my mouth was useless. I could not speak.

Standing in front of the church, or down at La Baguette, I have a happy patch that very much feels like a second self. I prattle, happily. I gesticulate. This learned fluency causes me to wonder about the mastery of mystery, if I might apply myself to that and become fluent in faith. 

I just might. But not today.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Delightful, Rick, as always. I’ll be waiting almost patiently for the next episode.

  2. I love this story, thank you!

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