Alternative Spiritual Formation in the Italian Piedmont & Tuscany

Soon after I announced this summer’s spiritual formation trip, a full slate of travelers had signed up.  (A “full slate” means small–a half-dozen or so, a dozen at the most. ) So we’ll be eleven, myself included, focused on “alternative communities.” We’re headed to the Italian Piedmont and Tuscany.

Sunset Arno River Florence Italy

Sunset over the Arno in Florence, Italy

With Roman Catholicism as a backdrop,  “off-the-beaten-track” sites will populate the foreground. Santa Caterina del Sasso, Damanhur, and Torre Pellice will be starting points in the north.  What are they? A lakeside hermitage, an earth-centered ecovillage, and home of the Waldensian church, respectively.

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

Waldensian Museum, Library and Cultural Center, Torre Pellice, Italy

 

Then we’ll head to the Ligurian coast and Tuscany for familiar stops in Pisa and Lucca.

Ligurian Coast near Rapallo

Then the English community of Bagni di Lucca (a hot springs resort that became a WWI refuge), and Nomadelfia, a Roman Catholic commune (that began as an orphanage), will remind us of many ways of putting faith into practice.

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Altar to Minerva, Fiesole

Finally, a few days in Florence  & Fiesole will provide glimpses of Roman and Etruscan ruins, reformer Savonarola’s cell, and the historic Jewish community. Such alternatives have existed for centuries on a peninsula primarily known in the US for the influence of St. Peter’s.

If you missed this opportunity, keep a trip in mind for the future. What will be next year’s itinerary?  Think about it . . . . And then let me know. It only takes an idea–and a handful of interested travelers.

 

Mark Sundeen, The Unsettlers & The Good Life

Mark Sundeen Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life

Mark Sundeen’s book, The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

Mark Sundeen’s The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America ranks among the most interesting new books I read in 2017.  Here are some highlights from my  review of it, which appeared in Communal Societies a few months ago. Perhaps these lines  will intrigue you, if you’re looking for a few more titles for your winter reading list.

In this piece of “immersive journalism,” Sundeen explores three contemporary couples  whose searches for “the good life” took them down paths to lifestyles different from those of most Americans. His intensive interview time with the Possibility Alliance in La Plata, Missouri, Brother Nature Produce in urban Detroit and Lifeline Farms in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, contribute to a story that is both personal and engaging.

The Unsettlers Tradition

With echoes of Henry David Thoreau’s apology for his two years at Walden Pond, Sundeen explains his motivation:

“I wanted to see if living along lines of radical simplicity brought a deeper, truer relationship to land, livelihood, economy, and spirit. . . . What I wanted to learn was how to lead a good life.”

Sundeen’s past experiences–before journalistic authorship–also pushed him toward this topic. With years of outdoor work experience, plus lots of travel, he, too, had been often in search of something other than a career “tethered to a screen”  and enslaved by capitalism.

With this personal background revealed. Sundeen places himself, his humor, and his occasional skepticism into the immersive experiences. These occur primarily in the three featured sites of the diverse American landscape. But other locales, such as Brooklyn and rural France, emerge as well.  And he sinks the stories of Sarah, Ethan, Olivia, Greg, Luci and Steve into the larger context of America’s many utopian and communal experiments. Their personal histories with alternative agricultural practices, in particular, come to life within this larger context. Sundeen discusses movements as diverse as the celibate, religious Shakers of the nineteenth-century and Stephen Gaskin’s the Farm, a latter-twentieth century enclave that continues today as an educational site.

This larger context of communal, utopian practices is what drew me to his book, of course. (It also explains why my review appeared in the latest issue of the Communal Studies Association journal.) Sundeen’s interviews should interest others, however. Those skeptical about or interested in urban agricultural practices should be enlightened by Brother Nature Produce and its history in Detroit.  They should find fascinating the longstanding but changing organic practices in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley. And the Possibility Alliance in northeastern Missouri draws interest because of its attempts to live off the grid.

Past Heroes, Present Purposes

Sundeen and his subjects have certain heroes whose names continually resurface. Chief among them: Wendell Berry (his The Unsettling of America influenced this book’s title) and Mahatma Ghandi. Their beliefs capture a spirituality, self-discipline, and social activism that Sundeen believes many liberals don’t quite understand.

Many liberals talk a good talk, but when it comes to walking the walk, well, they’d rather drive.

By contrast, his subjects make sacrifices in order to share their visions of how the world might become a better place.

Stylistically, The Unsettlers reverberates with the tone of J. C. Hallman’s In Utopia (St. Martin’s). Also like Hallman’s book, Sundeen’s study provides a broad historical context for this topic of living intentionally.  It, too, is worth a read.

Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Constance Fenimore Woolson

Linking “utopian” communal groups and American women writers in Italy, I spoke last weekend on Constance Fenimore Woolson and Zoar.

Zoar Separatist Community

Zoar Separatist Community, Ohio. Woolson loved to visit from her home in Cleveland.

Woolson began her career with a sketch on the Ohio German Separatist community of Zoarites. “The Happy Valley,” published in 1870, set the foundation for Woolson’s more than two decades as a successful author. Her thought-provoking and insightful sketches, novels and short fiction  are regaining the attention they once held. Woolson’s somewhat nomadic life took her throughout Ohio and the Great Lakes region, to Florida and the Reconstruction south, to the Mediterranean and Italy, where she died in 1894.

A few weeks ago, Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux asked for some specifics about my conference talk. I put off answering. Now that it’s complete, I’m better set to respond.

Potted Lemon Trees in Italy

Potted Lemon Trees in Italy

Woolson’s 1881 letter written from near Rome’s Spanish Steps invites the connection between Italy and Zoar. She wrote to friend and editor Henry Mills Alden of the loggia above her apartment:

“this loggia is a little square room with windows towards all points of the compass, and an arbor outside, made of lemon-trees, plants in pots, and climbing vines. . . . Here among the roofs and campaniles, and under the deep blue sky of Rome, I can sit and write in perfect solitude when tired of my little parlor below. It all seems so wonderful and strange,–the being here at all! I think of Ohio and the Zoar farm where I used to spend so much time; of Mackinac and the peculiar color of Lake Huron; and of Florida, and the pine-barrens. And, all the while, I am in ‘Rome’!”

At a conference where participants’ interests are primarily communal groups, I began with this quote but then concentrated on Zoar.

The Zoar Sketches

Woolson’s early works referring to Zoar set the stage for stories in which her characters often imagine better worlds. Within “The Happy Valley,”  “Solomon” (1873) and “Wilhelmina” (1875), published in Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly, Zoar prompted such glimpses for visitors from Cleveland and Cincinnati. In these stories, Woolson juxtaposes idyllic views with life’s often harsh realities—whether within or outside of the community.

Fruits of Zoar

Fruits of Zoar

To set the stage for the Communal Studies Association conference audience, who knew nothing of Woolson but something of Zoar, I mentioned Woolson’s now-better-known predecessors, contemporaries and successors—Hawthorne, Twain, James, Howells, Wharton, Cather. I depended heavily on what Woolson biographer Anne Boyd Rioux and Zoar historian Kathleen Fernandez have written on the subject. The “enclave of German separatists in the Tuscawaras Valley” was one of Woolson’s “favorite spots” to visit, coming from her home in Cleveland.

The “enclave of German separatists in the Tuscawaras Valley” was one of Woolson’s “favorite spots” to visit. . .  Anne Boyd Rioux

“Woolson’s feelings for Zoar show through.”   Kathleen Fernandez

Woolson’s “romantic” and “idealized views about the Society” include some inaccuracies. But “the stories have the ring of truth. Woolson’s feelings for Zoar show through.” I added to these overviews an assertion that Woolson’s writings about Zoar enabled her to soar.

Professionally speaking, anyway, the author’s imaginative reflections on life in and around an intentional, utopian community contributed to her following of readers. This following bolstered her financially and gave her confidence. Zoar prompted Woolson to spin stories that pushed her to consider the themes of marriage and the isolated artist’s life. As Rioux and several other scholars have noted, these themes would remain with Woolson throughout her career. I suggest additionally that the three Zoar sketches considered together reveal the beginnings of her understanding of the power of utopian imaginings and of gift exchanges that cross barriers of community and place.

“Solomon” — A Story of Gift Exchange

Through “Solomon, ” in particular, a story of gift exchange and human love, Woolson reminds us that utopia is, by definition, not a literal place. Rather, it is an imaginative vision that individuals hold and may share. By the time Woolson wrote this sketch, she realized that linking Zoar insiders and outsiders were these keys: imagining, giving and exchanging, and in doing so, creating community, however small.

Memories of past experiences lead to ideas of community shared in the present and projected onto the future. The German Separatists held memories of European traditions as they shared visions of a new home in the Tusacarawas valley and labored to build it. So, too, Woolson held on to her memories of childhood visits to Zoar. She adapted them, as the Zoarites adapted to their new environment.

First Settler House Zoar

First Settler House Zoar

While Woolson migrated as an uprooted adult, looking for the perfect place in which to write, her work also caused her to imagine other places. As she soared above and beyond Zoar in later years, moving to Italy, she never completely left behind the idyllic place in Ohio. As Rioux has noted, in the last few years before her death, she was “writing . . . of her father and their trips to Zoar and the Tuscawaras Valley in Ohio.” Memories of Zoar, even late in Woolson’s life, reflect the importance of those visions that fed her imagination and bolstered her professional position.

Audience Response and More

The best news about this presentation? The audience response. One person asked, why was Woolson popular in her day but overlooked in the twentieth-century? And why has scholarship on Woolson exploded in the last decade? More than one asked about her financial success. Several wanted to know how to access Woolson’s writings. Of course, I referred them to Miss Grief and Other Stories , to Victoria Brehm and Sharon Dean’s gathered reprints,  and to the Great Lakes collection, Castle Nowhere. I told them that their local libraries might have turn-of-the century copies of Castle Nowhere, Jupiter Lights, The Front Yard and Dorothy. I explained that the Constance Fenimore Woolson Society website provides a chronology of all her works, with active links to those available free online.

Finally, I encouraged them, as I encourage you, to read “Solomon.” Once  you do,  you will be hooked to move beyond the Zoar sketches to see how they enabled Woolson to soar as a writer.  You will be engaged by her ability to capture life’s hopes and promises, as well as its troubles and truths.

 

An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine

Occasionally I read a not-recently-published book that moves me so that I wonder how I missed it when it first appeared.

Book Cover of Divine Expectations An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine

Book cover of Barbara Kreiger’s Divine Expectations: An American Woman in 19th-Century Palestine.

 Divine Expectations is one such book. Since it was published fifteen years ago, interest in the Mid-East has certainly increased. Although now the US war against ISIS complicates language of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, themes of religious differences in this ravaged zone continue to loom large. Add to these contemporary interests the fascinating story Barbara Kreiger tells in this book. Her focus: American Clorinda Strong Minor (1809-55), who spent the last five years of her short life in Palestine.

Devoted to a utopian vision of agricultural improvements and spiritual development, Clorinda Minor traveled as a married female without her husband. While on journey she wrestled not only with cultures and languages new to her but also with new technologies. A neophyte to rural farm life, she believed in a future heaven on earth–an ushering in of Christ’s kingdom–in the crescent of the world that has interested Americans and Europeans for centuries. The role of the Jews there, she believed, was essential to the divine kingdom that had been prophesied.

For those who know nothing of Americans in Palestine in the nineteenth century, the expedition in which Minor was  a part opens up views of global relations that go beyond typical evangelistic missions and economic imperatives. By zooming in on specific individuals, Kreiger brings to life the realities of loneliness and personal hungers. In addition to Minor, for example, Kreiger tells the story of John Meshullam, a convert from Judaism to Christianity. Dedicated to farming although also a hotel proprietor and successful businessman, Meshullam was crucial to Minor’s successes. The life experiences of both these transnational travelers included strong desires to achieve. At the same time,  their driveness sometimes contributed to conflicts in their utopian efforts and communities.

Firmly grounded in research and well-documented, Divine Expectations contains clear prose. Approximately a dozen illustrations from nineteenth-century publications recreate what Americans then were envisioning as they read about the Holy Land. Kreiger gives readers a story whose narrative arc demonstrates dreams, struggles, triumphs and failures, both large and small.  Overall, this American woman’s journey included engaging those around her in a vision of social improvement.

I loved this book so much that I bought it for my mother-in-law! Her interest in travel, history and religion suggests Kreiger’s work will engage her as much as it did me.

View all my reviews at Goodreads

Vida Dutton Scudder, Christian Socialist for Several Generations

Yesterday my son, just returned from grad school,  told me he’s writing an essay on Vida Dutton Scudder.  Before stating her name, he hesitated.  Why the hesitation–in what was otherwise an enthusiastic report of his first term? Was it that Scudder, a Turn-of-the-Century and Progressive Era activist, is an unknown figure?

Vida Dutton Scudder

Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), Political Activist and Christian Socialist

Although Scudder is relatively unknown today, that was not the reason for his noticeable pause.

Rather, he almost hated to tell me because he knows that she is one among a handful of women at the center of my research. Her political activism and spiritual journey were influenced largely by her time in Italy.

Scudder’s settlement house work, utopian writing, and teaching at Wellesley come up every semester in my Public Affairs seminar for B. A. English students. And I have given a few off-campus presentations to adult audiences about Scudder–not only her activism in Boston’s Denison House and Circolo Italo-Americano but also her writings about St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis of Assisi. Last summer I took adult travelers to La Verna, which was an important site for Scudder as she wrote of St. Francis.

La Verna St. Francis site

La Verna, St. Francis site

During these moments of impassioned conversations about Scudder’s coinciding beliefs and actions, my son has been engaged otherwise–understandably so–with his own interests. He has not been a part of these captive audiences.

Yet somehow Scudder’s name, associated with my motherly ramblings, came into his consciousness.

Now, a few months into his intensive readings on the “social gospel” movement, he selected Scudder and Walter Rauschenbusch for further research and writing.  My son firmly underscores that his emphasis is on their theology; he is analyzing their writings and not discussing Scudder’s “utopian” endeavors in her daily life. Scudder differed from Rauschenbusch, he continues, in her affiliation with the Christian Socialist party. While Rauschenbusch claimed socialism ideologically and theologically, he was never officially affiliated with a Socialist political party.

I appreciate the clarification and the distinction.

Do I know about the Fabian Society? he asks.  A little, I say. I know of its place alongside of “utopian” and spiritual/ist groups of the “turn-of-the-century.”  I pull Joy Dixon’s book Divine Feminine from the shelf. It is the closest at hand that contains information on both Theosophists and a few references to the Fabians. I wrote a review of it–I stop to calculate and realize it was almost two decades ago. Some say that’s a generation. . . .

Yes, my son is correct. My focus has been on Scudder’s literary endeavours–her teaching of literature, her settlement house novel, A Listener in Babel (1903), her translation and editing of St. Catherine’s Letters (1905), her works on St. Francis and his followers.  These are not without their spiritual and religious components. Even her autobiography, On Journey (1937), falls into the category of spiritual narrative I analyze and regularly teach. But my approach is not theological. I am a literature professor.

La Verna Site of St. Francis vistied by Vida Dutton Scudder

Cavern known as St. Francis’s bedroom, a site visited by Scudder and by a recent group of “pilgrims.” Dr. John White, emerging, was influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch’s ideas.

I am interested, however, in Scudder’s differences with Rauschenbusch. And it is not just that my son has now taken interest in them. I first learned of Rauschenbusch, the Baptist theologian, from friends John White (who attended Rochester Theological Seminary, where Rauschenbusch taught) and Peter Browning.

They often lead discussions of Christian social activism and its traditions. So when I began to learn about Scudder and came across her relations with him, I was intrigued by the interesting lines of association that link so many of us with common interests.

What I saw then between Scudder and Rauschenbusch and continue to see now was the importance of that relationship for both of them. They depended up their correspondence and communication of ideas. They spurred each other on. Earlier in Scudder’s life, John Ruskin’s lectures about aesthetics had stimulated her. She wrote extensively of them and drew from them as she taught literature at Wellesley. But as her life and experiences piled up, and as her confidence in her own ideas developed,  Scudder set aside Ruskin’s teachings and followed other paths. I have detailed these differences in notes. . . .

Will my notes and bibliography be of interest to my son? Will they be of help? Perhaps the former, likely not the latter.  We must all make our own intellectual paths, following our own curiosities.

Sometimes, in the short and dark December days, it’s nice to know the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I only hope that the germinating seeds will grow strong enough to bear future fruits.

Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies

In Bodies of Life: Shaker Literature and Literacies, I examine the roles of reading and writing in the celibate, religious communities known popularly as Shaker villages.  Questions driving the project emerge from the widely held belief that understanding and reasoning through texts (especially the Bible) under gird the best faith practices and true religion.  But the Shaker’s female founder, Mother Ann Lee, was deemed illiterate. She drew followers in Revolutionary America as she preached from Bible verses learned through hearing them. And she added to these what she gained through mystical visions and experiences.

Persecuted for distinguishing practices, such as female leadership, the Shakers grew in number nonetheless. They also prospered financially as the years passed.  Reading and writing in Shaker communities changed through the years as well. Bodies of Life traces the complex relationships among literacy and faith, reason and emotion, personal experiences and family ties.  Zooming in on individuals who came to and left the Shakers, the book makes communal life personal.  This approach makes it relevant to those today who are on spiritual quests and seeking communities.

Damanhur: An Italian Earth-Centered Community

“Damanhur: Sustaining Changes in an Intentional Community,” is the first chapter in the book Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World. In it I probe the question of how a community in the mountains of northern Italy coalesced from small, urban gatherings of spiritual seekers in the 1970s to the eco-conscious group it is today. (more…)

Famous American Vegetarians

Vegetarianism is not a recent American trend, influenced by immigrant cultures and travel abroad. Waves of interest in meatless diets have surged and ebbed through the centuries. In fact, even 18th-century American “founding father” Benjamin Franklin abstained from meat as a young adult. According to his Autobiography, Franklin was motivated by desires for professional productivity and frugality rather than moral or spiritual beliefs.  In the 19th century, some American Transcendentalists, such as Bronson Alcott, and the “man of science” Henry David Thoreau, advocated vegetarianism for spiritual reasons. My essay in the Cultural Encyclopedia of Vegetarianism discusses these 19th-century advocates of doing without animal flesh.