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Laiety

The canticle of the hermit theologian

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03 July 2021

Adriana Zarri and her choices which can be considered the precursor of Laudato si’


“Theologess”. “Presumptuous pope”. Adriana Zarri was often apostrophised with derogatory titles before women had gained recognistion for their competence and the possibly to speak on theological matters. Instead, she grasped her right to speak, and with a wise and sharp pen, she debated, denounced and elaborated.

In the years before and after the Second Vatican Council, Adriana wrote for newspapers and magazines that aspired to reform the Church, so as to rediscover its evangelical roots: Il Gallo [The Rooster], L’Ultima [The Lowly], Il Regno [The Kingdom], Settegiorni [Seven Days], Rocca [The Stronghold]. All of these were intelligent arenas for cultural, spiritual and social reflection.

Her voice took a stand on the most burning ecclesial issues, namely hierarchical authoritarianism, the role of lay people and women in the Church, compromises and collusion with politics, celibacy and divorce, sexuality and contraception, and made herself a champion of a “grown up” Catholicism that thought. In 1962, she published a book with the evocative title La Chiesa nostra figlia [The Church, Our Daughter], in which she called for equality for the laity in no lesser terms than the clergymen, for a generative love as fathers and mothers, with the duty to point out “pathologies” and distortions in the community of believers. In 1967, with a collection of essays entitled Teologia del probabile [Theology of the Probable], she reproposed many of the conciliar debate’s controversial and suspended points, and opened a workshop for the discussion of Catholic identity in comparison with modernity.

However, she felt above all that she was a writer and thinker. Through her essays and novels she had the authority to elaborate her own personal Trinitarian theology, which was at that time undergoing a revival in theological thought and consequently became a fundamental perspective of her experience and reflection.

Her theological vocation had come about early on, in her childhood years.

She was born on 26 April 1919 in San Lazzaro di Savena, on the outskirts of Bologna, The third child with two older brothers, into a family that ran a mill. Her apparently serene childhood was actually troubled by a dramatic feeling of God’s rejection. When she was only eleven, this was resolved by a dazzling revelation of divine love, which she experienced as a true “conversion” and set her off on her religious quest.

In unpublished diaries and rare interviews, the words with which Adriana referred to that experience, which was repeated throughout her life, recall the evocative pages by Simone Weil and Raïssa Maritain. She experienced the inner certainty of a God who was near, a Presence bringing communion and light. This was a passionate love that she would later rediscover in Teresa of Ávila and Catherine of Siena and sung about, with words learned from the Song of Songs and mystical literature, in Tu. Quasi preghiere [You. Almost prayers] (1971).

The classical lyceum and the Gioventù Femminile di Azione Cattolica [Girls’ Youth of Catholic Action], which she attended in Bologna, where the family moved in 1933, gave her a solid cultural and moral formation. The religious institute of the Compagnia di San Paolo [Society of St Paul], which she joined in 1942, which was animated by a spirit of “apostolic mysticism and active contemplation”, offered her other opportunities for further study.

It did not take long before Adriana matured the need for a new spirituality that would revalue human experience in its fullness, and which would overcome the pessimistic and mortifying attitude of traditional ethics. A new freedom beyond any security of status or religious institution was needed, so as to share humanity and the history of everyone.

She left the Society in 1949, and moved to a flat in Rome. She supported herself precariously by working as a journalist, and devoting herself to her writing and her theology. Adriana’s novels and essays were published, such as Giorni feriali [Weekdays] (1955), Impazienza di Adamo [Adam’s Impatience] (1964), È più facile che un cammello... [It Is Easier That A Camel...] (1975), in which she proposed her own interpretation of God and the world.

In the midst of her life, while treasuring an intuitive wisdom in which she identified specific traits of feminine thought, Zarri perceived a Trinitarian pattern imprinted in the cosmos and in man. This pattern invested the relationship between the sexes, the journey of humanity, and every level of being. In addition, a God who, in himself, was a triune and the dialectical relationship of the Father the Son and the Spirit transmitted it through the act of creation and the gift of incarnation.

More than this theological elaboration, the categories she drew from this thought were creative and vital. These were signs of the times in the second half of the twentieth century, the height of an era that favored rapid transformations. The plural, communicative, loving image of God undermined the previous monolithic, distant and fearsome figure. This image redefined the human and Christian style on values such as the richness of diversity, the validity of confrontation, and the dynamics of relationship. In addition, it revalued feminine qualities such as the welcome, the openness, and capacity to listen. The mystical feeling was nourished, which strengthened the intimate conviction of a “total solidarity” between Creator and creatures, of a God who “is other, but is an Other within” reality and things, and the awareness that a “divine seed” is buried “in the mortality” of beings.

Zarri’s non-systematic and non-academic reflection benefited from the knowledge of many sources of past and present Christian thought. These sources ranged from the Fathers of the Church to Thomas Aquinas, from Charles de Foucauld to Teilhard de Chardin, from Karl Rahner to Marie Dominique Chenu, with whom she was an affectionate correspondent.

The maturation of her own theology and spirituality did not attenuate the polemical vis of Adriana’s words, not even when, at the end of the 1960s, she started her own original monastic-heritage experience in different places -Albiano d’Ivrea, Molinasso, Ca’ Sassino- in the Piedmont countryside. The hermitic choice, she maintained, with its perspective of detachment, did not appease or isolate her from the history of all, but made her critical conscience more acute and vigilant. This she continued to exercise in her novels (Dodici lune, [Twelve Moons] 1989; Quaestio 98, 1994; Vita e morte senza miracoli di Celestino VI, [Life and Death without Miracles of Celestine VI] 2008), on the pages of the daily newspaper Il Manifesto, and through radio and television programs such as Samarcanda.

Once again, it was a choice of freedom and secularity, which is alien to any institution or ecclesiastical vow, as it is exclusively entrusted to a firm inner promise. A choice that annoyed or fascinated others because of a radicalism that was perceived as somewhat exotic in years when interest in the hermit’s life was just reawakening in Italy. Adriana accepted interviews and photo shoots in the popular press of the time, but espoused her choice with absolute rigour and coherence, “simply” living the life “she wanted to live”, as the journalist, Sergio Zavoli observed in an article that favoured her choice.

Combining essentiality and poverty with the language of beauty, she restored grace and splendour to disused objects and environments, made gardens and orchards flourish, and breathed new life into desert lands. Her hermitages became oases of rediscovered harmony, where Christians who were uncomfortable with the ecclesiastical institution and those who aspired to an Absolute to which they did not attribute any name to were welcomed without prejudice or discrimination. These were spaces of wide-ranging scope in the years when the Church, as it was written at the time, “lacked breath”. It was home to intensely religious souls, such as the Camaldolese monk Benedetto Calati, or fiercely secular ones, such as the journalist and intellectual Rossana Rossanda, and a host of affectionate friends who accompanied Adriana until her last day, on 18 November 2010.

She lived in those secluded dwellings as a foretaste of a promised and believed Eden, the first fruits of an endless life in which she already felt she was participating, “immersed” , as she loved to write, in “cosmic communion”. In this place she was able to realise the contemplative spirit that she had always felt was her truest vocation.

She became a teacher of prayer and of new balances between humanity and nature, and spoke of this in Signore del deserto [Our Lord of the Desert] (1978) and in Erba della mia erba [Grass of my Grass] (1981), now in Un eremo non è un guscio di lumaca [A Hermitage is not a Snail’s Shell] (2011). Decades before the environmental emergency made a breakthrough, the Pope wrote evangelical and revolutionary documents such as Laudato si'.

When, in 1996, the philosopher Luce Irigaray involved her in a reflection on the special quality of the female soul, she wrote: “Abandoning ourselves in the cosmic arms of the earth, abandoning ourselves in the arms of life is the feminine way of abandoning ourselves into the arms of God”.

By Mariangela Maraviglia
Author of Semplicemente una che vive. Vita e opere di Adriana Zarri [Simply One Who Lives. The Life and Works di of Adriana Zarri], Il Mulino.