One thing I wish I could bring home from Italy but cannot: the gonging of church bells. Here in Perugia, they mark the quarter hour with a primeval sound intended long ago for people who couldn’t read, people who had no access to clocks, serfs who needed to get up in the morning and pray. Now the bells serve a different purpose: I do need to get up and make breakfast for recalcitrant schoolchildren, go to work, return home, check e-mail, make dinner. I don’t need these bells to tell me the hour-I have a BlackBerry, a cellphone, and watch-but they clang out a larger, deeper measure of time, the mortal one.
We are culturally Christian, atheist Americans in Italy. We celebrate Christmas with a tree. The most church time our children had before Italy was once when I had the quaint fantasy of exposing my toddler son to a country church in upstate New York, pushed his stroller through the wooden doors only to spy stacks of anti-abortion leaflets, and backed quietly out. We all went together one Sunday to St. John the Divine in Manhattan, on the day when they bless the animals and dogs and camels walk down the aisle. They were too bored to sit through the sermon, so we went outside and petted the reindeer.
Since we’ve been in Italy, though, we’ve entered dozens of beautiful churches together, from Rome to Bari. Besides the endless walls of Renaissance art, the virgins suckling babes, the hanging statues of bleeding Christ, we’ve seen the macabre stacked skulls of Otranto, the shriveled but well-dressed 11th century corpse of St. Ubaldo in his glass coffin in Gubbio, the reliquary of St. Nicholas (yes, that’s Santa Claus to us) in Bari. We’ve watched men, women, and children enter, make the sign of the cross, and kneel, while we, atheist tourists and never more outsider than when in these places of worship, wander around the margins of their sacred ceremony, agog at the paintings, at the mind-boggling beauty of the jewel-box ceilings.
The quotidian bells are but one way in which religion-in the material form of churches-has regulated life in Italy for so many centuries. For us these churches are museums; for the Italians, something else entirely. And the harder I try to understand what that something else is, the more baffled I am.
Does the church, for example, exert some kind of moral sway? Not really.
At school, the Italian fifth graders say " Oh mio dio " and " Madonna !" as mild oaths. They have all been confirmed in the Catholic Church but they also swear and fight a lot, so all that regular churching hasn’t made them any less like our kids in that sense.
In the hours between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m., all the shops shut down. People go home for lunch, and, I am reliably told, many of them are using that free time to have sex with their lovers. Their "nooners" last for hours. Italy is home of the slow-sex movement.
Furthermore, the nation’s very Catholic leaders are lascivious old men, openly consorting with boobalicious babes not their wives, even prostitutes (Berlusconi), and acknowledging relationships with transvestites (Google the governor of the province of Rome). No one seems to mind.
Does the church provide comfort to the aged, to those who have lost loved ones?
Perhaps. Whenever we enter one of them, we see the occasional older man or woman, sitting alone, or on knees, head down in prayer. But they never seem crowded.
Religion exerts an undeniable pull, though.
Our children are fascinated by the votive candle tables. They always beg us for a euro to drop in and light one, after which they, too, have acquired the habit of kneeling at the bar and putting their hands up, praying to a divine being whose existence we have never acknowledged in our household.
At the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, they watched other children and parents lining up to be blessed by an actual priest in a brown wooden box, and they wanted to do that. I gave them two euro coins and they joined the line, only to be sent away with a mere nod, rather then having their hands actually held. A small sign at the window indicated the blessing required a $10 euro donation.
We went to Mass on a Sunday morning at San Pietro Church here in Perugia, a stunning, gloomily lit antique with black marble pillars, walls are decorated with dark Renaissance paintings depicting Biblical scenes we will never understand without a guidebook. I made the children sit quietly through the entire service, from the hymns to the Italian sermon. When the worshippers lined up to receive the eucharist at the end, my son Felix wanted to see what they were doing. I told him to get in line.
We lost sight of his low head in the line of adults moving toward the altar. After an unusually long time, I began to panic. I got up and crept to the side, from where I saw him behind one of the great pillars, being talked to by a man in black. I waved, and the officiant relinquished our chastened child, who returned to report that something he had done-probably taking the host and then taking it out of his mouth-had caused alarm. "He asked me if it was my first time, and I said yes, and he told me not to tell anyone," he said.
I left the Mass in a state of mortal embarrassment rather than grace. By letting Felix enter the line uninstructed, I had displayed the heedlessness many Italians associate with Americans. I have since come to understand that since our son never made a First Communion, we may be technically guilty of host desecration, a charge commonly hurled at Jews and witches in the Middle Ages. I assume that since he is a child, he is forgiven.
I, on the other hand, am another story.
We have since returned to San Pietro’s grounds, because the Benedictine monks operate a medieval garden behind it, but Felix gives the actual church door a wide berth. He is always worried that he will run into "that man in the cassock."
Thus, perhaps the first and greatest religious mystery of all, fear of the man in the black cassock, has been revealed to us.
Photograph of the Duomo in Milan, Italy by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images.