Interview of Luigi Gioia by Michael Ford
The Importance of Being Patient. A Portrait of Luigi Gioia Michael Ford meets the Italian monk-professor and best-selling author on prayer and contemplation
The beguiling city of Matera, on the boot of southern Italy, is one of this year’s European capitals of culture. Set on a rocky outcrop in a small canyon, it’s noted for its primeval-looking scenery, underground city, cave paintings and numerous Christian buildings, doubling as ancient Jerusalem in many famous films. It also happens to be the birthplace of best-selling spiritual writer Luigi Gioia, monk, priest and professor of systematic theology. ‘I was brought in a family where my mother had always been very religious, while my father was the most anti clerical person I have ever met in my life, so I have always felt the tension between these positions, ‘ he says. ‘As a youngster I was very religious – I went to catechism classes, was an altar boy, and was always quite fascinated by clergy as my mother was and still is.’ But at the age of 13, Luigi rejected Christianity. He was militant in proclaiming himself to be an atheist and argued powerfully against the existence of God and became combative with the priests he knew. Three years later, though, he had an experience of conversion when he met God personally for the first time. Once he realised something was stirring deep within, a nun gave him Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography which impressed him at the time though he has since become sceptical about the model of holiness which emerges in that text. Although he acknowledges Therese’s many insightful passages and her sense of freedom, he finds the idea that you have to denigrate your body in order to come closer to God a negative force for the leading of a fruitful spiritual life. It was a culturally prevalent notion in the late 19th century France and still lingers in places today. Such antagonism between body and soul is not only unhealthy, but also unchristian, he thinks.
After Luigi’s teenage conversion, he was determined to dedicate his life to God and toyed with the idea of becoming a Jesuit. As a catechist himself by now, every year he’d take children to a small Benedictine monastery for a retreat. During confession once, a monk who saw right into his soul – ‘never canonised but truly a saint’ – encouraged him to come back alone and think about joining that community. After a year of patient reflection, he consented. He then got to know the saintly monk, Dom Cleto Campoli, who always radiated joy and positivity, and was rooted in scripture. ‘I remember years afterwards having conversations with him and being totally astonished by his freedom with regard to the institution of the church. While being very loyal, he was also very free.’ Luigi indicates that people like Dom Cleto are saints precisely because they have self- awareness. They have learned how to live with their shadow or dark side of their personality and managed to integrate it into their life. But as someone who was involved in the canonisation process of an official saint, Luigi has become suspicious of the Church’s ‘political business’ of making saints. The image chosen at the declaration ceremony is often of someone looking distinctly unearthly without a human face. ‘That is a very worrying phenomenon,’ Luigi told me. ‘Not only are body and soul divorced but it is also as if the shadow has been dispensed with. Even this idea of heroism of virtues is very wrong from a Christian viewpoint, as if they had become so virtuous, heroically relying on their own strength, which I think is wrong. The whole process is not really very edifying. But saints have relevance for today so long as one still has access to their humanity. Often official holiness seems to make these characters so remote that they are almost inhuman.’ During his early years of monastic training, Luigi was told that saints were to be admired but not to be imitated. The reason was paradoxical as the image presented tended not to be imitable ‘because it is a filtered image in which all of the humanity has been evacuated and you only have this idealised figure which doesn’t correspond to the reality of the saint in his or her own life. In the end, this is of very little help to individual Christians. It is absolutely necessary to recover the real image of the saints. If you have a saint’s writings and know how to read them, this is easier. The saints pertinent for today are those for whom it is possible to retrieve their real humanity.’ This is why St Augustine – the subject of his doctoral thesis – appeals to him so much, though he doubts he would be canonised in this era. In many ways Augustine was not an easy character, not only because he had a turbulent early life but also because, during his final decade, he let himself be trapped in ‘unhealthy controversies’, such as the anti- Pelagian controversy, which didn’t draw the best out of him. Nonetheless, by reading The Confessions of St Augustine, his homilies and, in particular, his commentaries on the Psalms, you always find his real voice, Luigi says. And it is a passionate voice in which you always perceive the tension between the desire for God and the ever-present shadow.
‘You can stumble constantly into passages in which Augustine acknowledges his failings with a candour which is striking, heartening and encouraging,’ Luigi explains. ‘The most interesting thing about his thought is that you cannot separate love from knowledge, which you know only to the extent that you love, and you can’t hope to achieve anything in life unless you mobilise your desire and your love. The anti- Pelagian controversy helped him in this sense not to rely on virtues but to find ways in which you can stir or awake your desire, and rely on that inner dynamism. Augustine has taught the church and Christianity to resist the temptation to externalise evil and to establish a clear dichotomy between goodness and evil. He recognized that our communities and the Church are imperfect, and that we will always be a mixture of good and bad people. The fundamental virtue in each one of us is to be patient with ourselves and with others because God is patient with us.’ If you read Luigi Gioa’s books, such as Say it to God (2017) and Touched by God (2018), you swiftly notice how he can be writing about Augustine one minute and a singer like George Michael the next. So I asked him if he thought some contemporary celebrities could help people on their spiritual journeys if they didn’t want to read the Church Fathers. ‘If you really believe what scripture, such as 1 Timothy, says – that God wants everyone to be saved - and we draw the consequences from that, we have not only to accept but also realise that God is actively working for the salvation of all human beings,’ Luigi told me before a book launch in London. ‘If God is actively working, we have to be able to acknowledge - to recognise - the signs of his presence and action everywhere especially where we expect it less. It wouldn’t make any sense for God to have died for us and then save only a fifth of humanity, or be present in only in a fifth of humanity. So, on the one hand, I believe we should keep telling Jesus’s story because that is the way the good news is supposed to reach everyone but, on the other, in the meantime, we should rejoice in the fact that God is free and is present in his actions everywhere. ‘We should delight in unearthing, in recognising, where he is acting everywhere. I believe that, in the life of every human being, there are traces of God’s salvation. If anything, growth in the spiritual life deepens our ability to discern, to read and to recognize this action more generally. Whenever you have someone who has gone through an experience that forced him or her to go deeper into himself or herself, or to question more deeply the meaning of life, such as George Michael in his song Jesus to a Child, you will always find something which is deeply edifying and inspiring. Everything that is good comes from God.’ Inspired by the work of Rowan Williams, Luigi Gioia has passionate views on the need to celebrate difference in an increasingly polarised – and polarising - postmodern world. The problem with postmodernism, he stresses, is that by losing trust in the possibility of truth (for understandable reasons), by claiming that all the versions of reality in all of the stories we tell and believe in are equally valid, and by believing that each person should be allowed his or her own story, believe in it and live according to it, society becomes an aggregate of different communities and different stories coexisting with one another in which people should be equally understanding of and for everyone.
In this way we construct a world in which we talk about tolerance but in reality are actually indifferent to each other. ‘We think that differences don’t matter anymore whereas differences do matter,’ he says. ‘We shouldn’t be trying to erase them, we shouldn’t try to ignore them and we shouldn’t despair of the possibility of reaching, if not truth, at least something which is more coherent as a common endeavour. We shouldn’t give this up. We can’t give this up. I think that it is absolutely vital not to be afraid of differences. We should not be afraid of maximising differences but at the same time – and this is where holiness comes into the picture – we must have a commitment to sustain those differences, to enhance the greatest ‘virtue’ of society, and Christianity becomes, in particular, a form of patience. ‘We should delight in unearthing the difference. We should engaging robustly in public conversation and yet at the same time always in a way that gives space to the other and accepts that we might never agree but be committed to live together in this space, and to be gentle and patient with each other. You can’t be indifferent to people, and so, if you are not committed to engaging with the difference, then you build eco chambers in which you have these different groups with everyone entrenched in their own differences, then fighting against each other without any effort to understand each other or engage in the elaborate process that leads to understanding. Patience and commitment to engaging with those who are different from us with true curiosity, love and interest is probably one of the features of holiness in a postmodern context.’ Luigi Gioia also reckons the Church has become less able in recent times to teach spirituality using the arts because it has become afraid of art and is ‘very controlling.’ The Italian sculptor Michelangelo, for example, had the freedom to paint the ceiling of the Sistine chapel in the way he wanted with figures in all their bodiliness. But then, a decade or so before he died, there was a complete clampdown on art in Christianity from which, he thinks, we have not recovered, and lost therefore, particularly in Roman Catholicism, the ability to trust art as art. Art has become more craft-making. When art is commissioned these days, artists are told how it should be done whereas, if you give a direction and let artists feel what they have to do, the result will be original, even disturbing sometimes. ‘But that’s what art does,’ insists Luigi. ‘I wouldn’t deny the beauty of art but art is first and foremost that which stirs, that which makes you stop, that which takes away from the routine and provokes. But you have to let art do this, and sadly we don’t have a space in Christianity and in Catholicism, in particular, for this kind of art today. This must mean something.’
While Luigi Gioia’s recent paperbacks are accessible and compelling, his book on Augustine’s De Trinitate – the subject of his doctoral thesis - is not for the faint-hearted. But, surprisingly, the monk, who was Professor at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome and is now a research associate of the Von Hugel Institute at the University of Cambridge, doesn’t regard himself as a ‘real’ academic. ‘I have always made the choice to write about what I like, what speaks to me, inspires me, and is in harmony with my spiritual life. I also I find it difficult to clothe myself in academic jargon because each time I find a text or vocabulary that I think is not understandable by the majority of people, I just feel very uncomfortable. I am more of a populariser than an academic.’ The Benedictine points out that his approach to scripture has always been monastic. He has occasionally read books of exegesis and benefited from them but says he has never had a scholarly approach to scripture ‘because I have never been able to.’ Furthermore, Luigi says he reads Augustine’s works and other theological texts in the same way as he has always read the Bible, with a method more immersive than critical. ‘You read over and over and over and over again until you hear a voice; then there is something that really resonates, and you discover it is like a house in which the doors open.’