The meeting with a nun working as a hospital nurse transformed the life of a young agnostic forever
We publish extracts from the "”Letter to a nun” which the writer published in “Christian Writings” in 1979. The text is taken from Ferdinando Castelli, "”Sentinels of the absolute" (Ancora, 2012).
Dear Sister, I do not know if you will ever have the chance to read this letter. I don’t even know, if while reading it, you will be able to recognize yourself in it: I don’t remember your name nor the name of the order to which you belonged. Furthermore in your life as a nursing sister you will have had many similar meeting such as the one with me, and what I am about to tell you, though exceptional for me but normal for you cannot have left a particular impression in your memory. I can describe only two specific things, a place and a date. The date was March 1953 and the place was the Villa delle Querce in Naples, a private clinic situated halfway between the Archaeological Museum and the district of Vomero.
I will speak to you about us, my wife and I, a young childless couple originally from Abruzzo whose life circumstances had landed them in Naples a few months previously. There we lived, and life was still hard with economic difficulties, and above all with problems settling into the city without relatives and almost without any friends. But what made these months even harder was my wife’s illness, and the urgency of a delicate operation.
In itself, I know, that there is nothing exceptional about the event. We were certainly not the first couple who had to face such an experience. But what made it appear more painful than necessary, apart from concerns regarding the outcome of the surgery, financial difficulties and general hardships, there were many other more intangible things starting with our own immaturity. We had both come from a relatively protected childhood and adolescence and it was the first time in which we found ourselves quarrelling, at least in private, about problems which were greater than ourselves. It was "life" with its hardships which suddenly fell down upon us, catching us unprepared. I still remember the long silent hours that we spent together alone, the two of us, in the atmosphere of the clinic, and my incapacity as an impromptu and clumsy assistant. I remember the melancholy at nightfall, the saddest hours in a clinic, and the long stressful nights.
Fortunately you were there, ready to smile at us and warm our hearts, ready to say just the right word and ready to perform the humble tasks which would perhaps generally have elicited the hasty and rather mercenary professionalism of the nursing staff. We soon got used to waiting for you, our hours were in fact centred upon the expectation of your arrival. You arrived delicate and swift; and there you are dedicating yourself – tender, attentive and mysteriously perceptive – to the needs of my wife.
From the beginning, I asked myself what was the meaning of all this. Why such a complete gift of one’s self to others and effectively so much charity. Why such joy in charity. Why so much humility. And why such a difference between your behaviour and that of others, that is all of us, restricted within the circle of our petty egoisms and our conceit. And you yourself can add the thousand other questions that came to my mind. But above all, don’t be surprised at this. Consider instead who I was at that time: to put it briefly, an agnostic with very little interest in religious phenomenon as such and above totally unaware, if you exclude its normal cultural expressions, of the effective reality of the Church, of the thousands of creations of Christian life of the thousands of ways of witnessing it, and of the thousands of heroic acts which as in your case, faith can give rise to.
Of course, narrated in this way my story becomes more simple, it erases the shadows, but it takes into account for example the persistence of a moral awareness which was impressed upon me during my adolescence and which has survived despite my refusal to accept it. But you should consider even more the inclination that I still felt for reading certain books which dig deep into and question the essence of man, of his meaning and mystery. Those types of books, in short, would not be possible without a religious presupposition and origin. My train of thought probably was never interrupted, but my physiognomy as a whole remained that of an agnostic who believes that he is done with certain problems or at most lives them only culturally or broadly speaking for aesthetic reasons.
And then suddenly I had the opportunity of meeting you, changing the cards that I had on the table and introducing many perplexities into my quiet secular universe. The tangible discovery, and not just through hear say, that there existed choices similar to yours, life experiences which are so unique and puzzling lived with such a serene courage, in short radically changed my view of Christianity and, and apart from getting rid of my polemical exterior, infiltrated into me a disquiet that would later come back, working in unexpected ways. Leaving aside, in fact, the intimately existential effects which were brought by this experience, and without beginning to speak of conversion, which would be too simple a term for a route which was long, much discussed and intricate, and which, in any case, I would not use, without a certain sense of shame, I can, nonetheless say that my own literary adventure seems to me to be highly intertwined with it. In short, I was born a writer in the aftermath of that meeting and most likely precisely as a result of that meeting.
Through your intervention, both my inner self and myself as a writer came to light together .
St. Peter’s Square
Jan. 22, 2019
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