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Pebbles, St. Augustine and Ponds

A frequent picture in my mind is that of Padre Settineri, a mentor for all the children loitering his presbytery looking to fill a dull afternoon with something exciting. He undoubtedly knew how to keep our restless limbs busy. The first floor of the Canonica was always open to all. You name it, he had the game: calcetto, ping pong, chess. Padre Settineri opened his doors with intentionality. His hidden quest was to tease our brains.

When he managed to get us together, Padre Settineri casually found the right moment to jumpstart our dormant brains with, “Cos’e’ l’infinito?” “What is infinity?” Immediately followed by, “Dio e’ piu’ immenso dell’infinito!” “God is more immense than infinity.” And finishing with, “La mente e’ troppo piccola per immaginare ‘l’infinito.” “The mind is too small to imagine (to create a picture of) infinity." He planted these universal queries as a permanent foundation for thinking for many years to come. Having found permanent roots in my brain, these planted seeds have grown into an overstretching tree of wisdom.

Another constant image in my mind is that of my father in continual motion. He spent most of his waking hours working with his hands. Whenever he was not sleeping or eating, he either hoed my mother's vegetable patches in the village's outskirts or fixed things around our piccola casa in Via Principe Umberto 33. Often he asked for my helping hands. Sometimes, I resented it. I wanted to kick the ball around with my friends. At other times, I didn't mind because I got to do something completely different.

One early Sunday morning, we drove with a friend of his down the beach to Marmora, picked up washed-up shiny beach pebbles, put them in buckets, and carried them back to the Cinquecento. The salt air and the view of the crashing waves made the work enjoyable. Once the buckets were filled, we returned to the village. My father, mixing the beach pebbles with water, sand, and cement, started building a circular pond for goldfish in his friend's shaded garden terrace. The fluid dexterity he handled the trowel is a vivid black and white photograph in my mind.

As I grew up out of my boyhood, I had a choice: go to work with a trowel or with a pencil and paper. I just loved the image of the older boys in my village returning home from the city with books held in their arms. If you become a student in my town, you do not have to work with your hands. Studying was considered to be hard work. I chose the second path.

It was with books that my thoughts found confirmation. It was in “The Confessions” that St. Augustine, while walking along the North African seashore and rationalizing about De Trinitate, saw a boy carrying water from the splashing waves to a little pond he had dug in the sand.

The Vision of St. Augustine and ther Boy at the Beach

Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli (Italian, circas 1445-1510)

Transported in time, I saw myself carrying pebbles back and forth. Only, this time, it was seawater.

St. Augustine is hovering over me, asking, "What are you trying to do?"

"Put all the seawater in my little pond!"

"My boy, your pond is too small to contain all the water from the sea!"

Further back in time, Padre Settineri querying, “The mind is too small to imagine infinity.”

Back to the future, to the original sowing, “God is more immense than infinity!”

It is in my thoughts that I seek reconciliation. I see Black Holes where matter and energy cease to exist. I seize the sensation that freezes my body in a moment that has no past or future. I sense that beyond these spaces and time, we find the life that we call God.

Yet, it is in the space of my backyard that I built a small pond to reconnect to my father's dexterity and remember that life is in motion and that we must capture the past in the present to find affirmation of our existence.

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