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Total theology

· Adriana Zarri’s eremitical novel ·

“One day the account of a miracle unexpectedly turned up in these pages; and it also suited me well because I was intending to celebrate the creativity of God in it. Yet normality is my real passion: the obvious routine of daily life in which ‘nothing happens’; but everything happens, life happens”. Although the person speaking is Benedict, a writer and the main character of Dodici lune (1989), this sentence can also portray – for it mirrors her so closely – Adriana Zarri, the incredible author of this novel.

Over the years we have become acquainted with this Catholic woman hermit. She was born in 1919 at San Lazzaro di Savena (near Bologna), the daughter of a miller (a former labourer) and the niece of a master builder. She was first the director of Catholic Action and later a journalist, after living in various Italian cities (including above all Rome). In September 1975 Adriana Zarri chose the eremitical life, first at Albiano, then at Fiorano Canavese and lastly, since the mid-90s, at Strambino in the Province of Turin. In her hermitages Adriana prayed, gardened, dedicated herself to animals, welcomed passersby and wrote.

She was already a conciliar theologian before the Second Vatican Council. A prolific writer and a profoundly Catholic but at the same time profoundly dissonant voice, as well as the first lay woman to be admitted to the administrative council of the Associazione teologica italiana long ago in 1969, Adriana Zarra was a hermit for 35 years. She was a free woman, bound perhaps solely to a sense of the sacred restored by an interweaving of naked faith, social justice, feminism and love for the defenceless, the weak and the persecuted. As such this theologian who, with the passing years, as a Catholic supported controversial, troublesome and sensational positions, has now gone for ever to the encounter with the Word, passed on from her hermitage to a humanity free to believe or not to believe.

However, among the many words she has bequeathed to us in her essays, memoirs and articles (for L’Osservatore Romano, Il Manifesto, Il Regno, Concilium, Rocca and a great many others), the pages of Bruno’s diary are truly a marvellous pearl imbued with life (“once upon a time”, Adriana was to write years later, “I was a pure intellectual; today I am an intellectual incarnated, contaminated, and soiled by material life”).

Thus Zarri had been a hermit for barely 15 years when she signed what was to be her only theological novel. So deeply convinced that “an impure theology, contaminated and compromised by living is a theology full of passions, events, rats, and all things; a total theology, because the discourse on God is a discourse on all things”, she recounts in Dodici lune Bruno the writer’s sabbatical year of escape. He has sought refuge in a small mountain village, accompanied by only his housekeeper and Mimmo, his cat. Reflecting on love, happiness, loss, death, resurrection, God, sex, the difference between men and women, fatherhood, loneliness, the meaning of life, theology, the significance of writing, advice (ignored), and mysogeny (all too often given attention, especially in the Church), Bruno’s time is at it were suspended. Literally devastated by the death of his wife Lia – do you remember Leah in the Bible and Leah in Dante? – and by the loss of his unborn son (two deaths that were to be calmly revealed in the narrative), he himself, surrounded by a very strong nature (now friendly, now inclement), is steeped in his sadness.

“The experience of writing is itself also, in a certain way, eremitical”, Adriana wrote, “since it takes place in total solitude, in which authors are alone with themselves and with God, if they believe, and the blank page is a sort of tacit desert that will blossom with words”. The woman who found her way through life in eremitism created the figure of a man who, although he was only a temporary hermit, was to succeed in finding in this very dimension the way to be reborn.

“Having reached a publisher”, one reads in the prologue of Dodici lune, “the diary seems to testify to an unusual story without stories, even though it is interspersed by accounts that run parallel to the diary itself as if to reveal, by contrast, its nakedness”. These stories with which the diary is strewn – like the gifts that Bruno gives to Lia every now and then – are modern parables. There is the parable of the convict and of the act of prayer which literally, in spite of himself, escapes from his hand (“he looked at his arm as if it were someone else’s, to make that ancient gesture which, even unbeknown to him, had remained within him for centuries as though it had been written into his muscles”); the parable of the tramp who died with his eyes open to see God immediately; the parables on old age and on the authentic meaning of faith and prayer and, further, on infertility, on the imagination of God and on motherhood with the terrible echoes of her absence in the child.

One is fascinated by the flow of this theological (and hence human) diary – from Adriana’s viewpoint – in which Bruno takes one step forward and three steps back; God stands on the threshold, he enters, is silent and responds; over and over again Bruno returns to the same details, interpreted and lived differently each time. He argues in one way and then the following day sustains the contrary. The person he is speaking to is Lia, is sometimes God and is sometimes indistinguishable. All that can be made out is the trail of a man who learns to interpret the loneliness which in the months from October to July becomes “a full emptiness”.

They seem passages from the great mystics of the past. Yet also in certain passages one seems to be reading Niente e così sia by Oriana Fallaci; because, in many of its dimensions, Bruno’s diary is the diary of a war, but of a war that has been won.

“You have smoothed my sorrow, you have smoothed my love, you have smoothed my life, and now”, Bruno writes, but against the light is Adriana’s radiant smile, “I am rolling towards the immense sea: your womb, the maternal womb of God: the bosom of Abraham, as the Jews used to say”.

Giulia Galeotti




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 20, 2019