I grew up in Rome, Italy, in a typical middle-class environment.
Compared to the standards of today, money was certainly not there in great quantity. No one felt “deprived” because he didn’t have luxury trainers, or a smart mobile phone.
Life was very simple, and utterly straightforward. You had people responsible for you (these were your parents), and they were the ones in charge of teaching you order, and discipline, and answering for it to the nearest judge. Most did their job rather well.
My father was on the sterner side of the average (I come from a family with a proud 100% Fascist background, mind; where Law and Order were written very large, rather than being a mere slogan).
As a child, I knew that punishment was not a possibility, but a certainty and in fact, I can’t remember one single instance where the threat wasn’t, when necessary, swiftly followed by its execution.
As a result, punishment was almost never necessary. Like many other fathers, mine mastered the art of deterrence at the start, and this made his life much easier ever after.
Parents were always present. They were really there. Being Italians they were, so to speak, everywhere. The idea I do not want to say that they might not know where I was, but that I might do the unthinkable (like, say, opening the fridge without authorisation, or speaking when commanded to stay silent) was just not seen as belonging to this sphere of existence.
I can’t say to you that it was always pleasant. I still keenly remember my desire to grow up and be an adult, in order not to be commanded around. To me, Adulthood was a magical state, the bearer of the most delightful of gifts: to be able to decide for yourself.
Still and in all that, I can’t say that I felt, one single day of my life, neglected or unloved. I still remember the day I discovered – already at University – that there could be sons who did not feel loved by their parents. To me, this was something you read in tales, not something happening in real life.In real life, a child feels loved as inevitably as he can see the sun. Dear Mary, please remember this when my parents’ hour comes.
Duty. Order. Obedience. Discipline. I wasn’t even aware of being raised with these values, so natural they were, so practised around me all the time. And make no mistake: whilst I am graced with what must be the best parents on Earth, millions of other Italian families behaved and raised their children in exactly the same way. I saw that everyday, in the tales of my school comrades punished for rather trivial offences (which today wouldn’t even be considered such: answering in a cheeky way, say, and being sent to bed without dinner); and today I see in it a typical Italian trait, the remarkable social uniformity among families. My friends were carbon copies of myself, their parents very similar to mine, an extremely constant (with the benefit of hindsight) set of family values was shared everywhere.When a German friend of mine told me “you Italians all think the same way” I didn’t initially understand what he meant. Now I do. You’ll be surprised – and perhaps terrified; your problem 😉 – of how many Mundabors there are around.
At school, things were very clear. When you passed the threshold, you were – legally – in another realm. In this realm, the teachers and the Frightful-Commander-in-Charge, the Headmaster, held all the power. And they took it seriously. Behaviour (“Condotta”) was considered most important, because there was enough common sense to recognise that without that, nothing would follow.
There was none of today’s human rights crap. A teacher could take a pupil by the ear without causing any idea that this might not be in the natural order of things. Many times I have heard the ruler snap, and many more I have seen the teacher walking around with it in his hands. Whilst its use was, in the end, rather seldom and more threatened than effected, when it was used the event was duly noticed.
Things happened, which to today’s sloppy generation of teenager-like apprentice parents would seem outlandish: tomb silence on demand, anytime; proper way to pose questions and answer them; no swear words whatsoever in front of a teacher; people actually absorbed knowledge, could read and count very properly, at 10 years of age in the worst cases. Even in middle-school (11 to 14 years old) a vulgar answer to a teacher would cause one to repeat the year: the fitting punishment for daring to do the unthinkable, and showing a clear sign of a subversive mind. I’ve seen it happen in my own class.
The older teachers complained about the relaxations of the customs, and the old system that was in place quando c’era Lui, “when He was there”. “Lui” being, for the record, always the same person. Tales of corn grain, mainly. They told us about it, and you could feel the corn grains in your knees.
It continued on the road. Italy had three main police forces: Polizia, Carabinieri, Guardia di Finanza. All three permanently armed, and not with plastic bullets. You saw them as a child: always elegant, the uniform impeccable, exuding authority. The weapon often plainly visible. They were Law and Order made flesh, and did nothing to hide it. I can’t remember one episode where they were not extremely courteous; but again I was never a rioter or Molotov-bottle thrower.
Then there was another kind of police: the reparto celere, “fast (deployment) department”, whose members were universally called celerini. These were the anti-riot police, and here other rules applied. The officers were among the best: cool-headed individuals, like knife-throwers or lion-tamers. The foot soldiers, they were bloodthirsty bastards: people who relished the fight, and delighted in being able to thrash other people legally. Dobermanns with stern masters. They had strange rubber batons, with an iron core. They say the batons could break your arm without even leaving a mark. And the policemen/Carabinieri had horses, and knew how to use them.
Water cannons, very popular in the late Forties and Fifties, were now not used often, the horse being the weapon of choice. But in the Cold War years the unforgotten Mario Scelba – then Home Secretary and, believe me, no Theresa May – used to have the water coloured with indelible tint, with the consequences you can imagine. In case you wonder about the colour it was, of course, pink.
The rules of engagements were clear: the mob could be asked to disband and had to obey. If it didn’t, a warning would come announcing that, in case of continued disobedience, the trumpet would sound thrice and the charge would begin. Now, the charge was a frightful thing and I wish I was able to show you period footage, often seen on TV in past years. When the trumpet sounded the first time, the mob began to run already. The horses would soon follow, and the horsemen would thrash without any regard anyone who, at that point, had no justification whatsoever for being in the wrong place. Those the horsemen had to contend with were no children looking for fashionable trainers or a TV set: they were full-fledged communist or anarchist hotheads; people on a mission, often trained in urban warfare, who knew how to throw a Molotov bottle and, at times, how to fire a weapon. Thousands of them became underground terrorists, two-thirds of these were killed by the police in the following years.
So, if you were planning to ask me why there have never been riots in Rome of the kind seen in London, with control lost for four days for a couple of thousand idiots looking for some appliances and a bit of excitement, you can avoid wasting the time.
In former times, generations of little Italians (and, no doubt, little boys and girls everywhere) grew up with this simple concept constantly hammered into their heads. The idea was that without self-control one would merely drift through life instead of living, and that life would soon give the boys and girls ample occasions to use the skills thus acquired.
This concept applied, once, to pretty much everything, and to the spiritual life too. And in fact, it is very clear to see how physical and mental discipline is a fundamental component of the spiritual one. We can, today, safely say that when the concept of physical and mental discipline went to the dogs with the non-repressive, softly-softly approach of the last decades, spiritual discipline rapidly followed in its decay.
It is part of the now almost forgotten wisdom of ages past that you need to strenghten your body if you want to strenghten your spirit. This is where penance comes into play. Penance is not only our willed suffering (more or less acute, I must say; very often, not really so acute) for Jesus, so that we may share in His Passion. Penance is, in his daily working, the way we force our body to discipline, so that our spiritual life may more easily bear fruits.
How can I really understand the Passion, if I can’t even stay without chocolate for a month or so? How can I give a tangible value to Jesus’ sacrifice, if in my daily life I cannot even bear to sacrifice meat on a friday? How can I keep Satan out of the most dangerous, darkest corners of my mind if I can’t say “no” even to very small gratifications of my appetite?
Nella vita nulla si ottiene senza sacrificio. In life you can’t obtain anything without sacrifice. This simple truth was planted into the head of countless generations of young Italians, and helped them to go through the challenges of their early life with the right spirit, and through the even bigger challenges of the adult life with a well steeled armour.
The newer generations seem to think differently, and to suffer accordingly. They are taught that in life, nothing will have to be obtained with sacrifice. They don’t learn by rote anymore and as a result many of them can’t even write. They refuse the idea of discipline and serious application and as a result US stipends go in growing numbers to Asian applicants. And they refuse the idea that spiritual progress involves bodily sacrifice and as a result, their spiritual life suffers and decays more and more into a meaningless collage of easy platitudes not requiring any discomfort.
Please compare this with the lesson of this very day, a day under the sign of sufferance, and of discipline to the utmost thinkable degree. Look whether Jesus chose the fuzzy, “let us embrace each other”, “let us clap our hands and celebrate” way. Look whether He – He Who could choose, which we can not! – decided to wash away our sins through a “march for peace”, or a “rock concert redemption celebration” or, instead, through an extremely painful torture followed by one of the most atrocious deaths imaginable (I know of worse ways to execute people of course; but the Romans weren’t savages like, say, the Comanches; nor were they refined bastards like the Chinese).
Discipline is not there anymore, which is why penance is, nowadays, difficult to understand. But penance is not a masochistic exercise in self-punishment. Penance is at the same time offering and training.
It beggars beliefs that people who get up very early in the morning to “hit the gym” at 6:30 or 7:00 am (a praxis, I am told, not so infrequent in the dear U S of A) don’t understand that the very same principles they are applying to their physical health applies to their spiritual one too.
At the same time, it doesn’t surprise that lack of discipline in everything should lead to the explosion of obesity so clearly observed everywhere in the fat and lazy Western societies and more so – obviously – among the younger generations now completely detached from the most elementary concept of……. discipline. Instead, we prefer to fabricate excuses, like inventing improbable and utterly ridiculous “genetic conditions” (what? Were those not there only one or two generations ago? Are those miraculously not present in Italy, France, Spain, Greece, but mysteriously appear among US Americans of Italian, French, Spanish, Irish origin? Are they miraculously present in prevalence among the poor and lazy, but not present among the healthy, active middle-class, those who hit the gym at 7 am?).
Penance and discipline go hand in hand. Penance trains you to discipline, and this discipline will greatly help you in your spiritual growth. Penance is passion at a very, very small level, but it is training to ascend to higher levels of spiritual life.
Penance is gym for the soul.
In life, nothing can be obtained without sacrifice. As this very day clearly shows.