We pray for another way of being:
another way of knowing.
Across the difficult terrain of our existence
we have attempted to build a highway
and in so doing have lost our footpath.
God lead us to our footpath:
Lead us there where in simplicity
we may move at the speed of natural creatures
and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet.
Lead us there where step-by-step we may feel
the movement of creation in our hearts.
And lead us there where side-by-side
we may feel the embrace of the common soul.
Nothing can be loved at speed.
God lead us to the slow path; to the joyous insights
of the pilgrim; another way of knowing: another way of being.
by Michael Leunig,
from The Prayer Tree 1990
Christine and I chose this poem for our wedding ceremony back in October 2010. Standing side-by-side, we committed to love one another. We also felt that for our love to continue to grow, we would need to slow down, to be more present for one another. Nothing can be loved at speed.
Well let’s say we have not exactly lived up to that ideal just yet… The forces of gravity, the pull of modern life, connectivity, productive work, a child... these things are not always kind to the joyous pilgrims. Yet a few months after our wedding, more by fate than design, we did step off the highway for a while.
Christine is half-Italian and from our home in Switzerland it only takes about an hour to drive to Italy. We speed through France, cross what used to be the world’s longest tunnel below Europe’s tallest mountain, the Mont-Blanc, and here we are: Val d’Aosta Valley, Italy.
The feats of engineering continue as we pass through the numerous tunnels dug across the valley’s difficult terrain. What used to take several weeks across mountain footpaths is now done in a couple of hours as one heads towards Venice, Florence and the many other Italian jewels.
For many years we did just that. Yet as we sped our way south, highway signs had enticed us with the name of a little known corner of this overlooked region: the Gran Paradiso National Park.
So one day we stepped off the highway and entered the footpaths of the “grand paradise”. Nature is beautiful there, perhaps the Alps’ best-preserved corner: Ibex, foxes, marmots, berries, mushrooms, glaciers, waterfalls, and very very few people around… I often walk those slow paths hours on end without meeting a single (human) soul, a rarity in the overdeveloped Alps.
Being there connects me to the landscape of my childhood, those magical moments where I could feel the movement of creation.
Yet it is one person that led us back to our footpath.
Letizia has lived on the edge of the Gran Paradiso all her life. About a decade ago she decided she wanted to host people on her farm, and Rosario, her husband, built a beautiful home for both the family and modern pilgrims.
Letizia is one of those rare individuals that move at the speed of natural creatures and I know for a fact that she feels nature’s love beneath her feet… and that nature feels it back. I have never met someone who demonstrates such love for a place, for nature, for her cats, dog, goats, rabbits, chickens, cows (all with names) and for those strangest of creatures: people. Letizia loves and cares for Life in everything she does.
On the outside you could mistake her for being on the highway though, always busy making sure her land, animals and hosts are well taken care off. Yet it is what is happening inside that matters. Wherever she is, whatever she does, she gives her full, undivided attention and care to the other. She has this intensity, this grace, this presence… while being in constant movement.
Now you might say it is easy to love in Gran Paradiso… But as pristine and beautiful as it looks from the outside, the region is not immune to our troubled times. One could argue it has lost its footpaths just like the rest of us.
Fellow local farmers criticise Letizia for not giving her cows modern fodder (i.e soy grown in the deforested Amazon) and for romantically sticking to mountain grass and flowers. Whenever she brings her milk to the local cooperative, people laugh at her modest daily production. Regional authorities scold her for letting everyone down and underachieving EU quotas. She talks about giving animals the food they need and them giving back delicious, nutritious milk.
In the end, Letizia does not worry so much about what other people think. She is an earthworm; she humbly, faithfully, keeps digging, keeps healing that soil and those souls that come her way. Because that is what she does. She speaks about the importance of loving one’s work, of caring for life; the pain of it, the joy of it.
Letizia might be the wisest person I know. She would be embarrassed of me saying that of her. I tell her she should speak to children, students, leaders, anyone, about her experience of farming, work, life. She says professors in Milan should be the ones speaking.
To me that is an illustration of perhaps the most profound problem our world faces today. We are listening to the wrong stories, to the elegant words and ego-driven narratives, to the part of ourselves that got us in trouble in the first place. I want to hear about the part of our humanity that humbly brings humus to the wasteland, not because it needs accolades but because that is simply what it does, lovingly.
We often like to think of paradise as another place, finally removed from all the nasty people and troubles. A place on earth, in the sky, in the future, the point is that we need to make our way there: being through technology, unspoiled nature or afterlife redemption. Those beliefs run deep in our collective imagination. They are also deeply destructive ideas as we keep evading life on highways in search for those elusive jewels.
People like Letizia remind me that our “kingdom of heaven” is right here, right now, not in some distant time or space. It is within us and between us; within every moment, within every action big or small. It is the beauty revealed in our courage to interact with our immediate world, our organisations and communities, in an earthworm life-giving way. Another way of knowing, another way of being. Will we care to join her?