Tablet - August 2011

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When he was ten Agostino was in the field harvesting with his family when the retreating Germans arrived. They brought their horses into the field and Agostino understood that this meant that the winter provisions would be lost.

 He ran up to one of the officers and told them they should not be doing this. The soldier smashed the butt of his rifle into Agostino`s face breaking several teeth and gashing his cheek. He ran home for help and as he was mending the damage saw a tank with a single white star approaching his farm. He wasn`t sure what side they belonged to but soon found they were Americans. One of them spoke Italian and asked what had happened to him. He gave them information about the German troops and then enjoyed, for the first time in his young life, a bar of chocolate.

After the war Agostino joined the army and was appointed to the presidential guard at the Quirinale Palace in Rome. It was an exciting adventure for a young man from the Maremma, one of the most natural and undeveloped parts of Italy spilling over the borders of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio. Because of his height and build and handsome appearance he was selected for one of the most prestigious duties, standing impassively as heads of state and high government officials passed across his protective gaze. But he could only endure the noise and confusion of the capital for a year and then returned to his farm where, now in his seventies, he remains.

He was the only son and his parents worked hard to expand the farm holding and leave him a prosperous and well-respected figure in the local community. His guns still hang on hooks between pictures of the Madonna and Padre Pio, reminders of his hunting days. He never shot rabbits or deer because he felt they were too beautiful creatures to kill. Even chickens from the farmyard he despatches with a shot rather than by wringing their necks which he cannot bring himself to do. But cinghiale, the local wild boar that are plentiful in the woods and forests were ugly enough for him to hunt. Normally a team of hunters lure them out of their lairs with dogs and then close in on them for the kill. Agostino preferred to hunt alone and would sling the beast over his strong shoulders, twenty or more throughout the season, and bring it home alone.

The Maremma is old Etruscan land covered with the tombs of this civilised people without a literary culture that the Romans ambivalently imitated and looked down on. They thought them effeminate because of their long hair and the equality they gave women who, on the frescoed walls of the rich tombs, can be seen sitting at banquets beside their husbands. A strange deep peace still resides in these untouristy places perhaps testifying both to their love of life and their apparently fearless attitude to death. One day Agostino found an Etruscan shield in his field, possibly of great value and significance. He was just a little more interested in the shield than in the pots and cups that he turned up regularly on his land and he placed it outside his front door where it stood for five years until one night it was stolen. He shrugs off this and other losses of his life.

One day a smooth talker from town sold him on a big deal that could not go wrong. Agostino signed off his house and land as collateral after borrowing heavily to drain the pond where his sheep and horses watered. The deal did go wrong and the sharp dealer made a killing but Agostino lost everything. When his  defrauder turned up one day to claim the property Agostino ran him off with a double barrelled shotgun. Nobody called the police and Agostino eventually accepted the loss. Friends spoke to lawyers but in the age of Berlusconi the law is not a way to find justice for the poor. He lives in his home on sufferance and the developers build around him. For himself alone it is a reality to live with and his faith gives him consolation. But there is a cruel shame and disappointment with regard to his parents who worked so hard to leave him and the wife he never took and the family he never had respectable and comfortably off.

Before a joyful lunch of pasta and salad we celebrated a simple mass around his kitchen table. It was also a happy celebration of shared faith, of breaking bread and the word in friendship; so it was a little unexpected, though not altogether inexplicable, that we all found ourselves at different times and perhaps for different reasons in tears.


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Laurence Freeman OSB

The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)

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