During the night of May 20 a strong earthquake hit Modena in the northern part of Italy. This is the exact province where I was born. The shocks continue even now, the situation remains unstable and difficult for thousands of displaced people who have lost their houses and jobs.
Despite the fear, which is wearing people out on a daily basis, there is still the strong desire to “start from scratch,” to regain control of one’s life and open up to the future. Compassion and hope are the words we are left with in a situation that does not seem to lighten up. I went back home right after the first shock. It was a very unique experience, one that I would like to try to share with you . . .
There comes a time when words seem so useless and fragile that they fall apart faster than the bricks that have fallen in Emilia. This is my land which – who would have thought? – has swallowed up the lives of people. Until yesterday, they were living peacefully, without too many jolts, despite the economic crisis.
An Eyewitness Account
In Modena a teacher told us: “This morning, when the world changed, I found myself underneath my desk on the floor, holding the hand of the child next to me, while the others were calling out to me. I could not tell them anything other than to stay calm, I told those who can, who know how, to pray to God in their own language. Twenty seconds are just a breath, but they can feel like an eternity. Some children are crying, but they all come out of the building behind me. We hold on to the few things that seem secure, and to each person near us. In the middle of the yard, among the trees, the parents arrive one by one, with gray faces looking for the only thing that has remained standing after the earthquake: the faces of their children. ”
I too have always before my eyes the sadness and the desperate looks of the people I know from my home town; the looks of the elderly, especially, and of the children --but also those of the priests who no longer have a church that is standing: Jesus in the Eucharist has been the first displaced in all towns struck by the earthquake.
I arrived home to my Mom’s house a few hours after the first shock and together we tried to figure out what to do. Even being together and getting organized for the night is difficult. Every few minutes we feel we might have to flee. And what can you do with the people who live alone in my same building? Thus, after some hesitation, I invite them all to leave together and take refuge for the night in the nearby town gym, where the Civil Protection is setting up a Temporary Shelter.
The cathedral in Mirandola
A collapsed home
Seeing with Eyes of Faith
Around us, about a hundred of people look lost, the children and newborns are in tears, and the elderly are in wheelchairs…. How do we see with faith what is happening around us? How do we translate all of this into “God loves me?” Talking doesn’t matter: people feel it; they can touch it, in the small tangible gestures of compassion, in a loving gaze. This is what I am trying to do that night. But inside, my heart is cut in two. I keep quiet, I do not say anything because those who suffer are particularly sensitive and do not need many words.
The earth continues to shake. The sky continues to bless us with a continuous wintery rain, despite the fact that today is May 20. Time goes by unstoppable and slowly. The night feels like it will never end. And the following days feel the same: every instant, what we have in the present is our only saving grace, it is eternity itself.
After fixing up my mother’s apartment and putting back some fallen furniture and picking up other not so valuable objects that had broken, I finally persuade my mother to leave the ‘red’ zone and settle at my sister’s house about 150 kilometers away.
Then there is another shock and now my town is a ghost town: many houses are destroyed, thousands of people are unable to sleep at home; they are either in tents or far away. And the earth continues to shake.
We are left with a question: "What is the Lord trying to tell us with all this? Sometimes His writing is illegible." It only takes a bit of faith, and if it only takes a pinch of it "to move mountains," we ask God to stop the ground from shaking.
Is there something that does not shake when the earth does? Yes, the Loving God. Everything crumbles and only God remains. In the meanwhile, we are receiving messages from all corners of the world, from friends, relatives, telling us: we are with you, we pray for you. We are the same flesh, we are the same body and when a member suffers, then the whole body suffers. Yes, we are one, and this gives us strength, energy and the sense of new life.
People from Emilia are strong, tenacious and hard workers! They have a strong sense of solidarity and sharing. The teachers in my town, a few days after the school was closed, went to the first aid centers and shelters and dressed as clowns to make their students play. Many of the children had spent the night in tents or cars.
When one experiences things through the heart of another, they acquire a whole new dimension. Maybe this is the way one gains that “heart of flesh” we long for so much. Then I can really say that we are living through a dark night, but there is also the hope that the rubble will not be the end.
“In abandoned places we will build with new bricks,” says T.S. Eliot. The brick churches no longer exist. The first brick that needs to be reconstructed is us, and the question one has to answer, which we want pose to everybody -- not only those of us who stay vigil in the night so that we won’t be awakened by the shocks -- is there something in life that does not shake?