Free to be what I was
· The saint of the month told by Francesca Romana de' Angelis ·
Rome, March 9, 1440. The night is falling very slowly this evening. Sitting by the window I watch the last light of this mild day which brings with it the promise of an approaching spring. A canvas woven with gold thread displayed to me my guardian angel. Since then I have not kept track of the time, but this morning I realized that my painting is finished.
After spending a few days with my unwell son I was preparing to return to Tor de Specchi, the small religious community that I founded and where I have been living for some years now, when father John, my precious spiritual guide, told me: you are tired, stop here. I accepted his invitation and I have remained because his words sounded to me like a sign. In this house in Trastevere, my marital home, I spent most of my life and maybe it is right that the last knot dissolves right in between these walls. I am not afraid of the end because I am hoping to reach the fullness of that blessing that I had the gift of seeing in my ecstasies: a sea of infinite light, the angels like snowflakes in the sky, Mary who protected me with her cloak and placed the Child in my arms. I am not afraid, but the leave-taking is still difficult. In addition to the child that I carried in my womb I am leaving so many others, because I have felt all those who I have loved to be my children. Not to be able to help them when they need comfort, this thought alone makes me sad.
High up, among the stars, I will bring with me some regret - the words not spoken, the gestures not performed, the many things that were too little - and so many memories. The pink of the sky of Rome with the green of the pine trees, the voice of my mother reading the Gospels and the Divine Comedy to me, the generous heart of my husband Lorenzo, the joyous laughter of my three children, the smell of mint that blooms between the stones along the Via Sacra that I used to go along on my way to Santa Maria Nova, my favourite church, the donkey that loaded with food and firewood was my faithful companion in the streets of the city. Of all the words in the world I'll bring one with me, gentleness, because it is the one that contains countless others: love, joy, tenderness. Just like the word hunger, which means not only hungry, but suffering, humiliation, loneliness, fear.
I have lived in most sad times. Popes, anti-popes, Rome invaded by foreigners or at the mercy of powerful families determined to seize power. And grief, violence, famines, the evil shadow of the plague. I have also lived with many sorrows. Above all the loss of my two children, Giovanni and Agnese, a cruel wound that nothing in the world can heal. Yet when I think of my life I see the gift of so much grace. My early years were a happy and secure time, a treasure chest of intact forces to draw on when life threatened to take away the clarity of my dreams. I had still not left childhood and already I was imagining a future of solitude and prayer, when my destiny took another road. Too beautiful to be a nun, my father said. I tried to protest, but to no avail. Finally I said I would, only out of filial love.
It was during the wedding procession to the Ponziani palace that something changed forever in my life. I remember that having passed Ponte Santa Maria - I've always loved bridges, those suspended strips of land that connect shore to shore, and men to men - I thought that what I was going through was a Rome that did not know, a poor and desolate city that had eaten away so much past and so much beauty. Monuments in ruins, miserable huts, narrow and muddy streets, ragged children, and only a few noble houses, closed up and protected like fortresses. A few months later, having recovered from an illness that was perhaps just the bewilderment of a teenage bride, that new way of looking at the world became an idea. I had to do something. And I was able to do something thanks to the loving heart of my sister Vannozza, to my indefatigable servant Clara, but above all to Lorenzo. After the misgivings of the early days my husband understood and left me free to be who I was. All those who knocked on our door were welcomed into my heart. I began to distribute flour, oil, wine, coins and divine providence always returned to fill what I had emptied: filled barns and barrels full so that other mouths could be fed. Over time I sold my jewels and clothes discovering the joy of turning the superfluous into the necessary: stones and precious fabrics became food, clothes and medicines. I learned that you can pray kneading bread, picking fruit and vegetables in the vegetable garden, cutting firewood in the vineyards outside the city walls, inventing ointments that cure the ills of the body, and words and gestures that cure those of the soul. And I learned also that it is not enough to give. One needs to welcome, protect, love, trying to bring joy where joy is absent. Because the heart of man - the poet that I loved from childhood was right - is like those little flowers, bent and closed by the chill of the night, that regain life only through the warmth of the sun.
By now, even the last light has gone. From the open window comes the buzz of the many people who have come to greet me. One must gather courage where one can. What I have repeated to others countless times, tonight I say to myself. Tenuisti dexteram manum meam says the Psalm.
My right hand held tight to yours, Lord, will make it easier to say goodbye to those I have loved.
Francesca Romana de 'Angelis was born in Rome, where she lives and works. After graduating in literature, she taught at a liceo classico. A scholar of Italian literature of the sixteenth century, she has published essays and editions of texts. For many years she has worked on cultural programmes and written scripts for RAI. Among her works, we remember the wonderful biography of Torquato TassoSolo per vedere il mare (2005 Massarosa Prize), Storie del Premio Viareggio (2008) Con amorosa voce (2008). For us she has written the history of St. Martina (January 2013).
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