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That sign which is missing

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02 January 2021

“Let us give one another a sign of peace”. I often felt like crying at that exact moment. I was not sure why, but it probably had something to do with my body being tense during Mass as I followed precise ritual gestures, and then to relax for a few moments, approach bodies (sometimes strangers), exchange a look, a handshake, and a precise, whispered word: peace. In “giving” peace, I was probably wishing for a bit of peace for myself, a stillness that came about first of all from the loosening of muscles, as if the tension accumulated in the body could become liquid.

For just a few moments, so as to allow oneself the luxury of stepping out of the confines of one’s own body while remaining within the format of a precise ritual dance, which wittily provides for embarrassment right before, and the pleasure of contact right after. I often enter places of worship, but rarely attend mass, except for reasons related to a painful or festive contingency. At these times of physical social distancing, which have yet to be defined precisely so as to describe the condition we have been experiencing for months, I have often turned to profound formulas (the prayers, the songs, the poems, the expletives, the pleas for help and forgiveness). However, the lack of physical contact with other beseeching and grateful people is sorely missed.

A nostalgic recollection from years and years ago has come back to me, like a slow and very high ocean wave, taking me back to a time when going to Mass was the custom, not an exception. For years now, the Catholic Church institution has seemed more distant than deplorable. When I was in the Church more consistently, during the many years of being a Scout, I saw her faults more clearly; I hated her power, wealth, temporality, arrogance, inconsistency. Today, now that I am no longer play a part, I look at her as if that was from another world, as if she were a foreign body, and not me. Speaking about the Church in discussions among friends, I now inadvertently resort to a long series of stereotypes typical of those who know very little about a giant world, but who feel equally capable not only of making certain judgments, but also of modifying her injustices through a performative word (the Church does, the Church says, the Church is...). To alter the relations of force from the outside. I therefore feel the need to return to a truer word. The word is peace, and its correlative is détente/relief.

In the Gospel of John, which is one of the most beautiful works ever written, Jesus comforts his desperate disciples. One of them has just betrayed him, another who will deny him three times, will found his Church - the situation is quite tragic. His disciples, who we could also say are friends and brothers, are despairing because they do not know where he is going to go; they believe they have lost him forever, there is their master who is about to face his destiny, and they are very afraid of being left alone. They are afraid more for themselves than for him, how low and yet how human to feel this way! Forever.

I believe it is no accident that Jesus says to them before leaving, “Peace I Leave With You, My Peace I Give To You”. He delivers the word peace twice in the same sentence. The second time, however, with that “my”, does not only give them a mandate on how they can stay in the world, for he also gives them his peace, plausibly keeping all that is contrary for himself. In my very personal reading of the text, I see a man/god who does not keep peace for himself, but hopes for it and gives it to his brothers. For this reason, when in church we exchange a sign of peace, I am still moved: we meet (sometimes just for the time of a glance) and greet each other (touching) giving each other a legacy and a warning that has nothing to do with behavior, but concerns the essence of a possibility, of moving away in peace. The meeting was possible thanks to tension; the greeting is possible only with relaxation.

The three lines above could be a consoling conclusion to a morning thought.  In one of the many awakenings of these particular days, in which dawn rests violently on my eyes; but I cannot omit the initial anguish that forced me to rethink peace as a possible condition. If the body of the other person is missing, if its form and boundaries are impossible to touch, what are we to do with a gift and a reception that takes place secularly in the exchange, even a physical one?

Can I give (and receive) peace from ghosts? It is instinctive for me to bring my hand to my heart as soon as I meet someone I love very much. This is as if to say, “You are here, you are here too”. For now, this is the ritual gesture that corresponds most to a hug and a handshake in a church. At last, I get out of bed for good and I remember with nostalgia the “giggles” as children and as girls because of our sense of embarrassment of a wrong gesture during the rites.  These included, for example, kneeling too early, getting up when everyone was seated, sitting down in the middle of the Creed; and, I am fond of the idea that the sign of peace we exchange in mass, today, in times of physical distance, we risk not knowing how to do it anymore; and, I smile a little about that.

by Viola Lo Moro
Partner of the Rome Women’s Bookstore, Tuba.
Author of a collection of poems called “Cuore allegro” [Happy Heart] (2020, Giulio Perrone Editions)