I've been preparing for a backpacking retreat that I'm leading this weekend. I've called it the Verso L'Alto retreat. The title is taken from picture of Pier Giorgio Frassati rock climbing on which he wrote these words, translated "to the heights." The idea is to take these young men, seniors, into the mountains, away from the city and its temptations toward mediocrity, in order to offer them Pier Giorgio as a model for holiness. While preparing my talks, I re-read the biography written by his sister Luciana titled "A Man of the Beatitudes." It is an easy read, but very profound. I selected quotes out of it to use in the talks, and I thought I would post them here for you. They are divided into sections by theme, with the page listings below. These page numbers will work if you have the Ignatius press version of the book.
“When one goes into the mountains one should sort out one’s conscience, because one never knows if one will come home. But with all this I am not afraid, and thus I am keener than ever to climb mountains, reach the most difficult peaks, feel the pure joy that is only to be had in the mountains.”
Pier Giorgio could not fail to love the mountains; for him they were an amusement in the Lord, rather than a distraction from the Lord…. The meaning is clear: purification, ascent…. He knew how damaging the city and idleness are to the young. He encouraged them, saying: “Learn to be stronger in spirit than in your muscles.”
“Every day, my love for the mountains grows more and more. If my studies permitted, I’d spend whole days in the mountains contemplating the Creator’s greatness in that pure air.”
That winter, in his new mountain costume, he seemed forged in bronze. Now he looked much smaller, thinner, tired. I thought it was the exams, the summer, but he was already beginning to detach himself from us. “You are pale, Frassati!” “I need the mountains!” he said. Yes, to go up high and not with us.
Clementina Luotto, 167
I think the meaning is clear, as Luciana tells us, for Pier's love for the mountains: purification and ascent.
The Meaning of Religion
Frassati is a Christian, simply and in an absolutely spontaneous way, as if it were something spontaneous for everybody. He has the strength and courage to be what he is, not from opposition to his parents’ generation, not from a prognosis and diagnosis of the culture of the time, or some such idea, but from the Christian reality itself: that God is, that what sustains us is prayer, that the Eucharist nourishes what is eternal in us, that all people are brothers and sisters.
Karl Rahner, 16
Karl Rahner, 16
“As long as faith gives me strength, I am happy. Any Catholic can’t help but be happy. Sadness should be banned from Catholic souls. Pain is not sadness, which is a disease worse than any other. This disease is nearly always caused by atheism, but the end we are created for shows us the way, which may be full of thorns but is not sad.”
He thought that religion, being love, should exclude everything that smacked of mere duty.
In the club, he was often surrounded by mediocre people. However, their very mediocrity made them ready to follow, and he ended up a leader.
For this he used his favorite instrument, high spirits, which, in its various forms, flourished in the society, creating a collective spirit and uniting all under the magic sign of laughter.
“In my inner struggles I have often asked myself why I should be sad. Should I suffer and bear this sacrifice with a heavy heart? Have I lost my faith? No, thank God, my faith is still steady enough and so we confirm that which is the only Joy that can satisfy us in this world. Every sacrifice is worthwhile only for this.
Then as Catholics we have a Love which is above all others and which – after that we owe to God – is the most beautiful, as our religion is beautiful. Love whose advocate was the Apostle who preached it daily in all his letters to the various churches. Charity, without which, says St. Paul, every other virtue is worthless. This indeed can become the guide and direction of our whole life, a whole program….
So, my program in this is to transform that special feeling that I had for her, and which is not wanted, to the end to which we must strive, the light of charity in the restful bonds of Christian friendship, respect for her virtues, imitation of her outstanding gifts, as with other girls. Perhaps you will tell me that it is mad to hope this. But I believe, if you pray a little for me, that in a short time I can achieve that state in prayer.
This is my program, which I hope with God’s grace to follow. Even if it costs me the sacrifice of my earthly life, it does not matter.”
“It is beautiful to live because our real life lies beyond…. I shall be cheerful on the outside to show my companions not sharing our ideas that you can be a Catholic and still be young and happy.”
There is something extremely profound about Pier's struggle with his love for Laura Hidalgo, an orphan who his parents would never allow him to marry because of her background. And so, Pier decided in prayer that this love was not for him. He devoted himself instead wholeheartedly to his service of the poor and his work among his friends, to sanctify them and to bring them with him to heaven. But he suffered terribly inside. The process of sublimation of romantic love into love for others is not an easy task. I know, I've taken a vow to do just that. Instead of loving in a way that I am not to love, in a way that is not wanted, as Pier Giorgio says, I am to imitate these young women, and pray for them, to love as they love and to show that love more widely to all of Christ's brothers and sisters.
This is painful. But Pier reminds us that pain is not sadness. Pain is a part of life, as are thorns. But sadness need not be part of that. Joy and pain go together, at least in the Christian vision. Pier was known for the constant smile on his lips and the laughter in his mouth. He never allowed joy to leave him. What a model for those times of loneliness and of pain, when the deprivation of unwanted love threatens to kill the heart.
Option for the Poor
His friend Paolo Marchisio pointed at a poor woman’s home exclaiming: “If I were the owner of that slum I’d pull it down!” Pier Giorgio replied in distress: “Oh, Paola, if you knew how many good souls live in houses that you call slums!”
His favorite saying, which he often repeated in letters, was: “When all accept Christ’s voice and teaching, we will be able to say we are equal and every difference between human beings will be annulled.”
Pier Giorgio was spiritually remote from all luxury and wealth. He had the great merit of having chosen the most difficult life when the easiest of lives was available to him.
“But I am poor like all the poor.”
Who would understand the greatness of his secret life? Humanity was his problem, which is why his mind often wandered as he went on eating calmly with an appetite that never let him down, as serene as if all the criticisms were addressed to someone else and as if there was perfect affection between those at table.
His option [was the] option for the poor and for militant Catholicism…. The “receptions” he attended did not require any formal attire, and they did have music and dancing! One day, the chancellor of the embassy, Rofi, seeing him rushing out, asked if he was going to some party. He answered by giving the address of an alley near Alexanderplatz, a street full of misery. And he entered those grim houses begging their pardon, shy in case he was disturbing people, never forgetting that hew as a stranger to them.
Someone who travels third class and takes the cheap seats in the theater so as to offer the difference in ticket price to the poor cannot side with the forces attached to money.
“From time to time think that while you enjoy yourself millions of others are suffering, so do as much good as you can…. It is not those who suffer violence who should fear, but those who practice it.”
“I see a special light surrounding the poor and unfortunate, a light that we do not have.”
“As we grow close to the poor, bit by bit we gain their confidence and can advise them in the most terrible moments of this earthly pilgrimage…. Seeing daily the faith with which families often bear the most atrocious sufferings, and their constant sacrifices, and seeing that they do all this for the love of God, often makes us ask why I, who have had so many things from God, have always been so neglectful, so bad, while they, who have not been privileged like me, are infinitely better than I. Then we resolve in our conscience to follow the way of the cross from then onward, the only way that leads us to eternal salvation.”
He goes about in secret, without applause, and to the poor he gives bread and his heart, to the orphan an affectionate caress, to the old his luminous smile, to the sick the balm of his loving care…. He ignores the brilliant possibilities that a high income would allow him and is not afraid to carry his singular evangelical spirit of renunciation, detachment, and poverty into a life which we humans have turned into a wild party where rude guests each grab the food from their neighbors instead of offering it around.
Angiolo Gambaro, 142
This last quote by a friend simply blows me away. "To the poor he gives his bread and his heart." The external and the internal, fused together in the sanctity of love. How often I am the rude guest. We all live this way, some more than others. And America is the center of this wild party. It makes one want to weep, but for Pier Giorgio, it simply led him toward a joyful austerity that is beautiful to behold. Without applause, to give.
You'll notice too that most of what Pier had to say was about his love and concern for the poor. That was his constant thought and inspiration.
Program for Life
“Student duties, religious practices, option for the poor”
Study was only part of his day and, although he considered it his first duty, he often came to it only after a considerable time spent with the poor, a session at the St. Vincent Conference, and a night spent in Adoration.
“This life must be a continual preparation for the next.”
There is a simplicity in his words that belies the depth behind them. I hope they can give you some fruit for prayer as they have for me.
Nathan O'Halloran, SJ