The Italian Tragedy
I got a new tin about a month ago. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. But little did I know I’d rename it the Italian Tragedy, and never mind the bucket-list Italian holiday I dreamed of when I bought it.
We (I probably should admit, I) gobbled up the packages of puff-pastry cookies in the tall canister in record time. Not bad, Pasticceria Matilde Vicenzi. The tin features a wrap-around panorama of a Mediterranean seaside village and a little chalkboard on the lid. I wrote “Coni’s Biscotti” there to remind me of the orange-flavored, almond-studded Italian biscuits I make each Christmas, named for a character and scene in Swan Dive.
Follow me—and Coni—up from the vibrant coastal villages of Italy through the golden landscape of Tuscany. We’ll bypass the grand cities of Florence and Milan for now and arrive in Turin, nestled in the mountain vales of the Piedmont, once capital of the Duchy of Savoy.
In the medieval cathedral of that city, I set the opening scene for a book my daughters started for me as a game some years ago. (Seriously, girls, I’ll get to it if I live long enough!) On her honeymoon, Coni’s search for her relatives leads her to Turin and on to the alpine valleys between Italy and France. There, she encounters the blood-stirring history of the Waldensian Christians.
The Waldensians–sometimes mistakenly thought to be founded in the late 1170’s by Peter Waldo, a French merchant-turned-lay-preacher–had hidden away in the Cottian Alps for much longer than that. These Valdisi (meaning “people of the valleys” in Italian, Vaudois in French) kept the light of the Gospel and the Scriptures alive through several centuries while hunted like animals, condemned, and massacred—often man, woman, and child. An Italian tragedy, indeed.
Today, variously harangued as heretics or praised among the morning stars of the Reformation, the Waldensians remain a testimony to faithfulness amid persecution. In their 19th-century church in Turin, the pulpit bears this Latin engraving: “Lux lucet in tenebris.” Light shines in darkness. Truly an alpine aurora.
I doubt if their doctrinal statement matched ours in every jot and tittle, but they knew what it meant to suffer and to “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (I P. 4:19).
It’s so easy, so natural, to ask in hard times—dark times, lonely, hurting times—Why? What is God doing?
And the answer is, He’s always, always, calling us. Sometimes, to find us. Sometimes to invite us to walk closer to Him. To give us directions, to make us torches for others on the path.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” –C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
In the Hands of God
Another Italian tragedy burst over me when I heard one of the country’s leaders proclaim that, failing all else, they had no other recourse except to entrust themselves to God. That, my friends, is serious business.
Not simply because of the gravity of the situation. But also because so many of us tend to flock to church or dash off a quickie prayer to the Almighty when life gets tense, only to bumble blithely on our way as soon as the pressure’s off. (Anybody remember 9/ll? Or how the Assyrians of Niniveh repented when Jonah preached…only to return to their old depravities a generation later?)
This time we can’t even go to church. Maybe, just maybe, that aspect of quarantine has the sobering advantage of forcing us to slow down and meditate on how serious it is to entrust ourselves to God unless we’re willing to repent. The writer to the Hebrews (10:31) admits, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
He is indeed “our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,” as the hymn goes. But He is NOT that only when all else has failed.
Not for one moment do I imply that our friends swept up in the Italian tragedy need repentance more than the Chinese, the Americans, or the Chileans. What I am saying is that whoever invokes God’s name had better prepare themselves for God to move in their lives, work in their hearts, and upset their comfortable routines. Because He doesn’t mean for us to stay the same old way.
He is not a benign household god, a lucky charm, or a last-ditch resort—-He is God. He is not passive, and He is not “our grandfather in heaven,” as C.S. Lewis wrote.
Some prefer the concept of fate or karma or evolution ruling our lives. Others turn to God instead of the impersonal, because He seems like someone with compassion and reason, that you can talk to—or beg. And while I don’t think God bargains, He does hear us when we pray. Is this not an opportunity to listen to Him too?
In Patagonian Journey 4 & 5, I mentioned passing a cruise ship when we sailed to San Rafael Lagoon. This same familiar ship, mainly populated with vulnerable seniors, has wandered off the coast of South America for weeks now, denied port everywhere. By the time they were permitted through the Panama Canal to Florida, several had died and many more had become infected—a sad reflection of the Italian tragedy.
Bless their hearts, and God have mercy. Because it’s not His wish that anyone should perish (2 P. 3:9).
On the other hand, as Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lc. 13:2-3). It doesn’t matter who we are, where we’re from, how privileged our situation. No position of prestige, no coincidence of birth, no overconfidence in ourselves…will shield us from the finger of God.
I ask, for example, what do you and I know about that once-upon-a-time power of Savoy now, except what we might read in a novel? It’s a long-fallen star.
But most of life’s tragedies aren’t so much about punishment as possibility. Not condemnation but an opportunity to heed His voice. While pain inflicts tough lessons and sometimes tempts us to rebel, God will use it. He doesn’t waste our hard times, though we very often do.
Answering His Call
“God does not waste an ounce of our pain or a drop of our tears; suffering doesn’t come our way for no reason, and He seems especially efficient at using what we endure to mold our character.” –Frank Peretti
My husband’s great-grandmother died in the “Spanish” influenza pandemic of 1918-20—the only member of that family to go. Thirza, an English immigrant to the Canadian prairies, was a hard-working farm wife and mother of six young children, including a newborn baby.
Yet the tragedy that shattered her oldest son’s life also shaped his character to respond to the love of God. A miracle bloomed and changed five generations.
So…we don’t despair and we don’t live in dread. We look up and see light, we listen and hear God’s tones of loving kindness. And we offer grace AND truth.
And yes, we throw ourselves into the arms of God. He doesn’t always do what we think best, but He never fails or forsakes us. Our hope can’t ring hollow—He is God.
These days are far from a waste of time. They are living proof that “the Word of God is not bound” (2 Tim. 2:9). Not even housebound.
I’m on a roll this month to master the art of homemade pizza crust, so I can share with others. We’re going to hold a big party soon, and I think I’ll make Torino bicerin to go with Coni’s biscotti.
The nightmare tale of the Italian tragedy could transform into an alpine dawn. Let’s pray that in all places, in all times, post tenebras, lux. After darkness, light.