Listen to the Italians clapping from their balconies

Listen to the Italians clapping from their balconies

Listen! What do we hear? Soon after the beginning of the lockdown, English people heard Italians clapping from their balconies. This expressed beautifully the paradox of this strange time. It was a moment of shared song and joy. Strangers joined in. Indeed people sitting in front of their computers and televisions from all over the world sang along as well. And yet the people whom we saw singing were each enclosed in their own apartment, unable to mix and mingle with others on the streets. It was a picture of unexpected community and isolation.

Yet are these so totally opposed to each other? Ideally they are not, since a strong community enables us to flourish individually and a strong individual dares to belong to other people in community. The acute individualism of contemporary Western culture often has the effect of weakening people’s sense of identity and can lead to conformism and insecurity. This sort of individualism can lead to the tyranny of fashion and the aping of celebrities. ‘If only I wore those clothes or had that haircut or had that car, I would be visible.’ Conversely communities in which we are deeply bound together often, though not always, give space for individuality and even eccentricity! So community and individuality are not opposed.

It is impossible for us to foresee today the ultimate consequences of this pandemic. There have been many pandemics in the past, but this is the first one which is being experienced as global. Every day one can read how many people became infected or died in every country on the planet. It may lead to social disintegration. But if we grasp the opportunity, it could lead to a deepening of our mutual bonds. It is a time of peril but also of possibility.

It has been a time of social isolation in which many people have been confined to their houses and apartments. Some have had to endure this alone and others with their immediate families. When I returned to England from Jerusalem, just before lockdown began, I immediately downloaded Skype and Zoom, so that I could see the faces of the people whom I loved.  Zooming is exhausting and many are suffering from ‘zoom fatigue’. It is not the same as relaxing in their gaze but better than nothing.

And we have been deprived of the touch of those whom we love. Grandparents have been unable to hug their grandchildren. Faces and touch nourish our humanity. And so this time of isolation has been an experience of deep deprivation for many, and even the cause of mental illness. But it is possible also to live this as a moment in which we mature as individuals and so are able to live more happily in community.

In 1364, when she was just 17, Catherine of Siena began a period of three years of self-isolation. She did it not to escape from the bubonic plague but to devote her life to God.  In this way she discovered herself; she said she had gone into “the cell of self-knowledge”. She was faced with herself, with the terrifying clarity of who she was; all illusions and imaginings had been taken away. This wasn’t gazing narcissistically at her own umbilicus. She even discovered that it was precisely this Catherine that was totally loved by God This was the foundation of her spiritual life: you know yourself only at the moment when you see that you are totally loved.

Catherine wrote to Raymond of Capua, her Dominican friend, “Try to know yourself”. We have to go into the “night of self-knowledge”. We discover our own shadows. Catherine wrote: “My shadow frightens me”. Only then will we discover God, the only one whose love, in every moment, gives us being. Anf then we will be able to rest in being ourselves because we will be in God.

In this period of isolation many of us have faced ourselves. Most of us  made afilm” of who we are. It’s hard to maintain these fantasies when we are alone or shut up in our homes with our family.

But this is the real person that God loves. This is the real person, not that image  created carefully on Facebook with a thousand friends, or the avatar in some world of fantasy.

And in isolation with our immediate family, we may learn to see each other truthfully, and so see the vulnerable and fragile person whom God loves unconditionally. So this time of isolation may drive us deeper into egocentric preoccupation with ourselves.  But if we have the courage, we may open our eyes to see others with a new clarity and learn to love more deeply.

After her three years of isolation, Catherine was able to open herself to a community of friends, friars and lay people, called the caterinati, who gave each other crazy nicknames and cracked jokes. She learnt the art of friendship through enduring solitude.

Another consequence of this pandemic was that people reached out to others with whom they had not been in contact for years. My Inbox was flooded with emails from people whom I hardly knew. When we livestreamed the Eucharist every day, ten times more people attended on-line than ever came to Mass in person before. From Oxford I took part in a webinar with a rabbi in Jerusalem, an imam from Bologna, animated by an American in Paris. People from 23 countries took part. So there has been an enormous expansion of communication.

But communicating with a lot of people does not make community. The internet has made global communication possible, but usually with people who are likeminded. Especially with abbreviated forms of communication like Twitter, people seek refuge in virtual communities in which disagreement is avoided. The temptation is to be bound together by simplistic slogans like ‘Make America great again.’ Such vast numbers of people are mobs rather than communities.

Aristotle defined the city as the place were different sorts of people interact. He wrote, ‘similar people cannot bring a city into existence’.[1] A spirituality of the city is one that helps you to live fruitfully with difference. So the challenge for us when we move beyond this pandemic is whether we shall be able to create communities in which people with different politics, different religions, even supporters of different football teams, can live together in harmony and pleasure.

Think again of those Italians standing on their balconies, singing and clapping together, but each in their own living space. This is a brief moment in which people who have been driven apart, come together. Strangers sang together. Maybe this is an image of how our communities may become stronger when this pandemic is over. And not only our communities, but each of us too, unafraid to reach out to strangers.


[1] Quoted by Richard Sennett Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City, Allen Lane, London, 2018, p.6

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