Amatrice before the earthquake. via Wikimedia
Italy is a land of earthquakes. We know them, we fear them, we mourn their periodic death toll. Our history is embroidered with the red thread of earthquakes, ranging from historical –yet unforgettable – memories, such as that of Messina in 1908, and those of the Belice 1968 and Irpinia (1980), up to those which happened during my own lifetime.
I remember clearly the earthquake of Assisi, in 1997: it had happened a mere few days after my first visit there. The days spent there had been a wonderful experience of my formative years, where spirituality, art, faith and solidarity had beautifully intertwined with each other. And now there was destruction, death, the unrecoverable loss of human lives and the crumbling of centuries-old masterpieces of architecture and painting. The loss of human lives was indeed unrecoverable; art managed to survive, and now Assisi is as beautiful as it was before the earthquake.
Then there was L’Aquila (2009), and Emilia Romagna (2012): hundreds of lives were taken again, artistic beauty was damaged or destroyed once more, and – of course – the economic costs of reconstruction, lost jobs and collateral damage impacted heavily on Italian society as a whole.
And now, 250 people have lost their lives in this week’s earthquake. The figure is devastating, but it sinks in our hearts especially when we come to know who they were, those who mourn them, their stories. This time, the earthquake struck a normally sparsely-populated zone, but – alas – one which is filled up with tourists and visitors during summer holidays. Tragically, the little (and once beautiful) town of Amatrice was preparing itself to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of a popular festival, in honour of a famous recipe called after Amatrice (“spaghetti all’amatriciana”). It was full of families, with children and elderly people – those most likely to spend their holidays on the Italian mountains rather than in exotic places. A family of four was found dead in their bedroom, with the two children (the youngest was just eight months old) hugged by their parents. Another child was killed by her family house: her mother had settled there after having escaped from the L’Aquila earthquake.
Television has showed us the heartbreaking images of elderly people, shaking and trembling for fear and for cold (yes, it is very cold up there). There was a father, who had left his family to enjoy the last summer days while he was working in town, and had planned to reach them for the weekend. He came back to find his wife’s family house destroyed, and his family dead. When the TV reporters interviewed him, there was still hope of finding his teenage daughter alive. But even then, his grief was hard to endure. I felt slightly guilty at watching it; it seemed that I was intruding in the sacredness of this man’s anguish.
There are also stories of hope and beauty. There is a blind man who managed to save himself and his wife, saying: “I’m used to going around in darkness, so I was able to find the way out of the building and bring my wife out”. There is the courageous and unrelenting work of the fireguard and volunteers. When I see the enormous danger they face when climbing on the ruined houses and digging for hours in the hope of finding a living person, or for the duty of giving a compassionate rest to corpses, I feel that the word “heroes” is really appropriate for them. There are the cheers and applause when somebody is found alive: Giulia, eight years old, survived for fifteen hours under the debris of her house, probably shielded by the body of her elder sister, who sadly died. People are queuing for hours for donating blood in the hospitals of the surrounding region; doctors and nurses work outdoors because a hospital has been damaged in turn.
Earthquakes sometimes bring out the best in human beings, who find in themselves courage, solidarity, strength and social bonds which are sometimes unnoticed or forgotten in daily life. Earthquakes strike us deeply, because they represent the brutal force of nature, against which technology seems helpless. (However, it must be said that Italy frequently fails to adopt the precautions and preventative measures that, if enacted, would save many lives). Earthquakes bring us to face the mystery of life and death, with normal people who, as usual, gave the goodnight kiss to their children but never woke up. But in the midst of despair and anguish, faith can give us hope and love, even if it cannot “explain” as neatly as a mathematic formula the why of what happened.
Two hours after the earthquake, I received an email from a friend who lives at the opposite corner of the planet, in New Zealand. He wrote: “Just a quick message to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the Italian people following the terrible earthquake in Umbria. We in Christchurch know what it’s like to go through a major earthquake. I’ll write more in the morning. For now, know that across the oceans we are thinking of you. I will pray a Rosary now”.
We don’t know why earthquakes happen, we don’t know why people die so tragically. But we know that solidarity, sometimes nourished by faith, can help us to endure loss and grief, and give a meaning even to the most inexplicable tragedies.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician, a musicologist and a theologian writing from Italy. She is particularly interested in the relationships between music and the Christian faith, and has written several books on this subject. Visit her website.