Saturday, October 08, 2011


I love their voices. They are gentle voices, talking in Romani, about a saint they love. My Romanian Roma workers today at lunch were telling the story of Saint Parascheva, the narration tumbling out in a mixture of languages, Romani, Romanian, Italian, English, reverently. She was the daughter of a shepherd and sent out to bring food to her father and to others at work. Instead, she gave their food, their bread and wine, to the poor, so that when she got to her father there was nothing left. I asked 'Was she beautiful?' 'Yes, very', replied Bancuta. I asked when had she lived. 'A hundred and fifty years ago, long ago', he replied. Breteanu Bancuta's son is returning to Romania to be there in time for her feast.
They bring her body out of the cathedral at Iasi in Romania on 13th October, now keeping it under glass, and a million pilgrims arrive to touch her and pray.
As soon as I had washed the dishes I went looking for her on the Web, finding that she was from the 11th century, and also finding these images, showing them to Bancuta, who immediately, in great excitement, called Daniel to share them with him.
Then I recorded them retelling her story.
I said that her story is like our story of Santa Zita of Lucca. She was the servant of a rich family, who gave her master's cloak to a naked beggar outside the cathedral, who then, as an angel, returned it to her Master. She also saved a boy from being taken by the devil by beating the devil with her broom.
On her feast day they bring her out in the church of San Frediano and we can visit her in her glass coffin, laying narcissi against the glass and then walking throughout Lucca's streets, with these fragrant bouquets, celebrating this servant.
You can read about her at with Frances Alexander's lovely engravings, that John Ruskin admired so greatly.
I love the way these stories transcend time and space, and give us models for ourselves, how their tellers are simple people who completely believe. Magnificat people. Romanian Roma enter our churches, crossing themselves not once, but three times, and touching the floor. In Advent and in Lent they fast strenuously, the last week with no oil, butter, eggs, milk, meat, sweets. A nursing mother does not drink milk on Fridays, nor on that day will a Roma touch iron because of the nails on the Cross. It is an honour to come to know them.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

John Kenneth Galbraith, in The Age of Uncertainty, said the way bankers make money is obscene. A true economy is a reciprocity of needs shared and matched. Better than a bank account is a skill, knowing how to build a house, knowing how to tend the land. Today we have become addicted to debt, to food, the consequences being bankruptcy, obesity. We are dependent on cash crops, again through deliberately planned addictions, such as to coffee and to drugs. All these cripple us, rob us of freedom, of happiness, though they seem to offer these enticingly, seductively.
Our education has robbed us of the skills our parents could have taught, how to build a dry wall to terrace land, how to sew with needle and thread, by telling us to despise the work of human hands, once the work of our parents, now the work done in the Third World by underpaid child labour. All this cripples us. Our young people, cheated of the well-paid desk job they were expected to get, today graffiti the walls of Florence with rage, making loveliness ugly.
In Italy, until Berlusconi, savings banks were required by law to use some of their obscene profits for cultural and charitable projects. These laws in the Middle Ages and Renaissance created Florence, before the 'Robber Baron' Medici were even heard of. The Guelf medieval city walls were built out of the stones of the Ghibelline 'towers of pride', the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, the ambulance and burial service of the Misericordia, the caring for and education of unwanted babies at the Ospedale degli Innocenti, Orsanmichele as a granary to feed even the enemy in time of famine, the caring for the proud poor by the Buonomini di San Martino, as well as the great cathedral and the Palazzo del Popolo (now the Palazzo Vecchio), setting in place a great network of social services in which the citizens themselves participated with their work and their money, their creativity, their energy. These civic laws and organizations worked for the common prosperity of all, their health, their education. No longer.
In the year 2000 we talked of forgiving debts to the Third World, realizing our banks were increasing poverty wherever they made loans to poorer nations who could not afford to pay. So banks turned upon their own citizens, foreclosing their homes with toxic mortgages, shutting down or moving businesses to 'outsource' them, to use the underpaid labour of the Third World, instead of the justly paid labour of the First, thus internalizing the Third World's poverty upon the First World.
We are back in the period of 'cool' Calvin Coolidge and the Robber Baron architecture of Washington, D.C., where the rich get richer and the poor get children in broken homes. The change could come with using the thinking of John Kenneth Galbraith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, investing in the people, in building the future.
We need to change education holistically, to value the skills fathers and mothers can teach children, to emphasize the work of the body, the mind, and the soul, using the work, study and prayer, of the medieval monastery, not that of the Greco-Arabic university's intellectuality alone. I value being taught during WWII by my foster father how to be a carpenter, which I have taught in turn to my children. My educated parents were writing speeches for Czechoslovakia's President in exile and listening to enemy broadcasts at Evesham. They didn't know how to build the bookcases for their many books. I do. My sons do. My grandchildren do. We know from this, too, how to build solar homes.
We need to change banking, to require banks to devote a handsome part of their obscene profits to providing health care, libraries, rehabilitation centres, museums, skills preserving and training centres. If they do this there will not be global bankruptcy.
We need to have nurturing families where new-born babies are loved, not abandoned with toys and machines, but instead held, rocked, sung to. In such a way we will not have dysfunctional adults addicted to war, drugs, debt, but instead people valued for their contributions in hand work, brain work, caring work, people whole in body, mind and soul, debt free.
Give us this day our daily earned bread
And forgive us our debts
As we forgive those in debt to us.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


If we raise a small amount of funding we can place windows in a house. If we do better we can even buy a new house with water, electricity, rubbish removal. This for a family of now 40 persons living in a condemned house rented to them by the municipality of Constantsa in Romania. Three and a half years ago their electricity was cut off. The two room house lacks windows. Many of the adults and children are ill with TB and leukaemia. I know this family well. The head of the family, Lupascu Copalea is skilled at many things and also morally straight, teaching these concepts to his children. But he has become ill with TB. Their thirteen children (Roma marry young and are faithful) have been unable to find work in post-Communist Romania. So they send some of them here to Florence to beg for the survival of them all.

In our 'English' Cemetery in Florence is the tomb of Thomas Southwood Smith, a medical doctor, head of a fever hospital in London in the nineteenth century who worked with Lord Ashley against the employment of children in mines and factories. Leigh Hunt's epitaph on his tombstone reads: 'Ages shall honour in their hearts enshrined, Thee, Southwood Smith, Physician of Mankind, Bringer of Air, Light, Health, Into the Home of the Happier Poor of Years to Come'. His granddaughter was Octavia Hill, of slum clearance fame. It was by his tomb's imposing obelisk that we held 'Alphabet School' the summer Lupascu Copalea was with us.

We say 'gypsies steal babies, they are dirty, they steal'. Yesterday (and not for the first time either), I had to persuade the police and social assistance not to take the new-born baby away from the mother, one of the 40 in this family, but to allow the two shelter together, a roof over their head. Her crime? Since the bulldozing of their camp at Osmannoro, this family sleeps in the piazza of the Santissima Annunziata, in the street. A mother with a new-born baby sleeping in the street through no fault of her own is considered to be criminal toward her child. Then, the same day, I was persuading her sister-in-law to have her baby born with medical care in a hospital. Hoping so much that Social Assistance will place these two Roma mothers with their new-born babies, the first a boy, the second to be a girl, under the same sheltering roof while they wait for the birth certificates, needed for getting the travel documents for returning home.

Denied a roof, water, rubbish removal, forced to live in shacks, then these bulldozed by the police, and next being forced to live in the streets, these people maintain strict personal hygiene, rules brought from India a thousand years ago. In my experience they do not steal. I have given the two sisters-in-law each a hundred euro which they are sending home for their other children's food as they were starving. Diamante now has three small children, Daniela has three and another to be born within two weeks and another who had died. They were frantic with worry, not for themselves but for all their children. They thanked me, kissed me, with dignity and joy.

If you feel moved to help these 40 persons of all ages there is a PayPal button on the websites,,

Sunday, June 05, 2011


It was a wonderful occasion, a gathering of my old convent school. Greatly daring, I bought the tickets for flying from Florence to Gatwick, arriving at St Leonards-on-Sea, to the television cameras zooming in on Joanna Lumley's arrival, for she too is an Old Girl of our school, why our English is so 'posh', so 'Queen's English'. I was coming back, the professed veiled hermit, too, of our Community of the Holy Family, the most learned community once in the Church of England, whose nuns at Profession were required to have New Testament Greek and encouraged to have Old Testament Hebrew, and who tutored the Lambeth Diploma. I became their librarian, book-binder, floor scrubber and dish washer for four years, caring for my dying teachers, Mother Gwendolyn, Sisters Joan and Eileen, and having visited Sister Barbara. My own learning had come from them, from tall, kind, brilliant Sister Veronica, who knew Greek and Hebrew, and who had taught me at six years old in the midst of flying bombs. I took that schooling to America at sixteen, gaining a doctorate in medieval literature at Berkeley, teaching there and at Princeton, coming to Florence during the summers to study manuscripts in the Laurentian Library and elsewhere.

Our Mother Foundress, Agnes Mason, C.H.F., dreamed of founding the Community of the Holy Family while sitting in an olive tree above Florence, a setting to which I had come fleeing from trauma in the Community. So I brought copies of Mother Agnes' prayer for the teachers of her Community, and also her motto, taken from the Epistle to the Hebrews, 'Let us be borne along by the Spirit', 'Pherometha'. I also brought blessed olive leaves, and many Old Girls thanked me for them though I did not explain they were for trauma healing. This is not needed. Though healing is. Then I visited the little graveyard with its simple iron crosses, each with a Sister's name, remembering the time I had fled, sobbing, to lie beside Mother Agnes' grave, then to find myself actually between hers and that of Sister Faith, whose death I remembered as a school girl, Sister Faith herself an Old Girl of the school, who became its nurse and who rebelled against the corruption that began with Mother Mildred, Mother Agnes' successor. It was as if the arms of both of them enfolded me, telling me that all would be well.

Sussex is so very beautiful. The next day I went to Hasting's Quaker Meeting and Harry Underhill then showed me the lovely view from his house, all healing and such kindness everwhere, particularly from Ember Wilcock and Daphne Hughes.