Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino, by Samuel Butler

Chapter IX

The North Italian Priesthood

There is now a school in the sanctuary; we met the boys several times. They seemed well cared for and contented. The priests who reside in the sanctuary were courtesy itself; they took a warm interest in England, and were anxious for any information I could give them about the monastery near Loughborough — a name which they had much difficulty in pronouncing. They were perfectly tolerant, and ready to extend to others the consideration they expected for themselves. This should not be saying much, but as things go it is saying a good deal. What indeed more can be wished for?

The faces of such priests as these — and I should say such priests form a full half of the North Italian priesthood — are perfectly free from that bad furtive expression which we associate with priestcraft, and which, when seen, cannot be mistaken: their faces are those of our own best English country clergy, with perhaps a trifle less flesh about them and a trifle more of a not unkindly asceticism.

Comparing our own clergy with the best North Italian and Ticinese priests, I should say there was little to choose between them. The latter are in a logically stronger position, and this gives them greater courage in their opinions; the former have the advantage in respect of money, and the more varied knowledge of the world which money will command. When I say Catholics have logically the advantage over Protestants, I mean that starting from premises which both sides admit, a merely logical Protestant will find himself driven to the Church of Rome. Most men as they grow older will, I think, feel this, and they will see in it the explanation of the comparatively narrow area over which the Reformation extended, and of the gain which Catholicism has made of late years here in England. On the other hand, reasonable people will look with distrust upon too much reason. The foundations of action lie deeper than reason can reach. They rest on faith — for there is no absolutely certain incontrovertible premise which can be laid by man, any more than there is any investment for money or security in the daily affairs of life which is absolutely unimpeachable. The funds are not absolutely sale; a volcano might break out under the Bank of England. A railway journey is not absolutely safe; one person, at least, in several millions gets killed. We invest our money upon faith mainly. We choose our doctor upon faith, for how little independent judgment can we form concerning his capacity? We choose schools for our children chiefly upon faith. The most important things a man has are his body, his soul, and his money. It is generally better for him to commit these interests to the care of others of whom he can know little, rather than be his own medical man, or invest his money on his own judgment; and this is nothing else than making a faith which lies deeper than reason can reach, the basis of our action in those respects which touch us most nearly.

On the other hand, as good a case could be made out for placing reason as the foundation, inasmuch as it would be easy to show that a faith, to be worth anything, must be a reasonable one — one, that is to say, which is based upon reason. The fact is, that faith and reason are like desire and power, or demand and supply; it is impossible to say which comes first: they come up hand in hand, and are so small when we can first descry them, that it is impossible to say which we first caught sight of. All we can now see is that each has a tendency continually to outstrip the other by a little, but by a very little only. Strictly they are not two things, but two aspects of one thing; for convenience sake, however, we classify them separately.

It follows, therefore — but whether it follows or no, it is certainly true — that neither faith alone nor reason alone is a sufficient guide: a man’s safety lies neither in faith nor reason, but in temper — in the power of fusing faith and reason, even when they appear most mutually destructive. A man of temper will be certain in spite of uncertainty, and at the same time uncertain in spite of certainty; reasonable in spite of his resting mainly upon faith rather than reason, and full of faith even when appealing most strongly to reason. If it is asked, In what should a man have faith? To what faith should he turn when reason has led him to a conclusion which he distrusts? the answer is, To the current feeling among those whom he most looks up to — looking upon himself with suspicion if he is either among the foremost or the laggers. In the rough, homely common sense of the community to which we belong we have as firm ground as can be got. This, though not absolutely infallible, is secure enough for practical purposes.

As I have said, Catholic priests have rather a fascination for me — when they are not Englishmen. I should say that the best North Italian priests are more openly tolerant than our English clergy generally are. I remember picking up one who was walking along a road, and giving him a lift in my trap. Of course we fell to talking, and it came out that I was a member of the Church of England. “Ebbene, caro Signore,” said he when we shook hands at parting; “mi rincresce che Lei non crede come me, ma in questi tempi non possiamo avere tutti i medesimi principii.” 15

I travelled another day from Susa to S. Ambrogio with a priest, who told me he took in “The Catholic Times,” and who was well up to date on English matters. Being myself a Conservative, I found his opinions sound on all points but one — I refer to the Irish question: he had no sympathy with the obstructionists in Parliament, but nevertheless thought the Irish were harshly treated. I explained matters as well as I could, and found him very willing to listen to our side of the question.

The one thing, he said, which shocked him with the English, was the manner in which they went about distributing tracts upon the Continent. I said no one could deplore the practice more profoundly than myself, but that there were stupid and conceited people in every country, who would insist upon thrusting their opinions upon people who did not want them. He replied that the Italians travelled not a little in England, but that he was sure not one of them would dream of offering Catholic tracts to people, for example, in the streets of London. Certainly I have never seen an Italian to be guilty of such rudeness. It seems to me that it is not only toleration that is a duty; we ought to go beyond this now; we should conform, when we are among a sufficient number of those who would not understand our refusal to do so; any other course is to attach too much importance at once to our own opinions and to those of our opponents. By all means let a man stand by his convictions when the occasion requires, but let him reserve his strength, unless it is imperatively called for. Do not let him exaggerate trifles, and let him remember that everything is a trifle in comparison with the not giving offence to a large number of kindly, simple-minded people. Evolution, as we all know, is the great doctrine of modern times; the very essence of evolution consists in the not shocking anything too violently, but enabling it to mistake a new action for an old one, without “making believe” too much.

One day when I was eating my lunch near a fountain, there came up a moody, meditative hen, crooning plaintively after her wont. I threw her a crumb of bread while she was still a good way off, and then threw more, getting her to come a little closer and a little closer each time; at last she actually took a piece from my hand. She did not quite like it, but she did it. This is the evolution principle; and if we wish those who differ from us to understand us, it is the only method to proceed upon. I have sometimes thought that some of my friends among the priests have been treating me as I treated the meditative hen. But what of that? They will not kill and eat me, nor take my eggs. Whatever, therefore, promotes a more friendly feeling between us must be pure gain.

The mistake our advanced Liberals make is that of flinging much too large pieces of bread at a time, and flinging them at their hen, instead of a little way off her. Of course the hen is fluttered and driven away. Sometimes, too, they do not sufficiently distinguish between bread and stones.

As a general rule, the common people treat the priests respectfully, but once I heard several attacking one warmly on the score of eternal punishment. “Sara,” said one, “per cento anni, per cinque cento, per mille o forse per dieci mille anni, ma non sara eterna; perche il Dio e un uomo forte — grande, generoso, di buon cuore.” 16 An Italian told me once that if ever I came upon a priest whom I wanted to tease, I was to ask him if he knew a place called La Torre Pellice. I have never yet had the chance of doing this; for, though I am fairly quick at seeing whether I am likely to get on with a priest or no, I find the priest is generally fairly quick too; and I am no sooner in a diligence or railway carriage with an unsympathetic priest, than he curls himself round into a moral ball and prays horribly — bristling out with collects all over like a cross-grained spiritual hedgehog. Partly, therefore, from having no wish to go out of my way to make myself obnoxious, and partly through the opposite party being determined that I shall not get the chance, the question about La Torre Pellice has never come off, and I do not know what a priest would say if the subject were introduced — but I did get a talking about La Torre Pellice all the same.

I was going from Turin to Pinerolo, and found myself seated opposite a fine-looking elderly gentleman who was reading a paper headed, “Le Temoin, Echo des Vallees Vaudoises”: for the Vaudois, or Waldenses, though on the Italian side of the Alps, are French in language and perhaps in origin. I fell to talking with this gentleman, and found he was on his way to La Torre Pellice, the headquarters of indigenous Italian evangelicism. He told me there were about 25,000 inhabitants of these valleys, and that they were without exception Protestant, or rather that they had never accepted Catholicism, but had retained the primitive Apostolic faith in its original purity. He hinted to me that they were descendants of some one or more of the lost ten tribes of Israel. The English, he told me (meaning, I gather, the English of the England that affects Exeter Hall), had done great things for the inhabitants of La Torre at different times, and there were streets called the Via Williams and Via Beckwith. They were, he said, a very growing sect, and had missionaries and establishments in all the principal cities in North Italy; in fact, so far as I could gather, they were as aggressive as malcontents generally are, and, Italians though they were, would give away tracts just as readily as we do. I did not, therefore, go to La Torre.

Sometimes priests say things, as a matter of course, which would make any English clergyman’s hair stand on end. At one town there is a remarkable fourteenth-century bridge, commonly known as “The Devil’s Bridge.” I was sketching near this when a jolly old priest with a red nose came up and began a conversation with me. He was evidently a popular character, for every one who passed greeted him. He told me that the devil did not really build the bridge. I said I presumed not, for he was not in the habit of spending his time so well.

“I wish he had built it,” said my friend; “for then perhaps he would build us some more.”

“Or we might even get a church out of him,” said I, a little slyly.

“Ha, ha, ha! we will convert him, and make a good Christian of him in the end.”

When will our Protestantism, or Rationalism, or whatever it may be, sit as lightly upon ourselves?

15 “Well, my dear sir, I am sorry you do not think as I do, but in these days we cannot all of us start with the same principles.”

16 “It may be for a hundred, or for five hundred years, or for a thousand, or even ten thousand, but it will not be eternal; for God is a strong man — great, generous, and of large heart.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:42