The Italian word for prayer

Basilica Facciata, Assisi, Italy

Basilica Facciata, Assisi, Italy

I have a somewhat big decision to make, one that I’ve been thinking about for several months, and I’ve been pretty stressed about it. I’m so bad at making even small decisions, and the big ones can overwhelm me. I keep settling on a course of action, and trying to make it stick, but then the pros and cons will start circling back again. I’m trying to focus on the pros, that there are good things to both paths, and everything will be okay either way. I know this. But it’s not just the cons that haunt me, it’s the decision itself. I get this way even when I have to decide whether to go out for the evening or stay in. Sometimes a migraine can come as a relief, making the decision for me, even as it frustrates me with my limitations.

My friend Judith McCune Kunst is teaching a poetry class in Italy this month. Before I tell you how this ties into my big decision, let me share one of my favorite of her poems, which was published in The Atlantic in March, 2000.


When Chiqui asked me if my sleep in her house
had been good, I told the truth with a sweep
of my hands: The mattress sags, I said, and left
for Spanish class.
                     She dragged the mattress
off its frame and propped it in the narrow hall.
She pulled the larger, slightly newer mattress off
her and her husband's bed and hauled it
back to mine.
                     Now when Chiqui asks me
how I've slept, I lie: Just fine, I say,
though by this time I've learned
the Spanish word for shame.

I’ll give you a moment to recover from that. It took me several before I could breathe properly again.

Are you ready to continue? Okay. So Judith is teaching a class in Italy, and ten days ago she posted on Facebook that she was traveling to Assisi, the birthplace of Saint Francis, and said to message her with prayer requests and she would pray for us in that holy place.

If you had asked me what I needed to cope with this decision-making process, I would have probably said a better to-do list, a wise advisor, or for something to happen that irrevocably made the decision for me. I realize now that this was a serious lapse of imagination. What I actually needed, and what was provided, was for a poet friend to pray for me on a sacred pilgrimage.

The nature of my decision is that I can’t really take any action on it until the end of April. There is data I won’t have till then, either. So it will be a few more weeks before events are set in motion, before I can stop thinking about it.

But in the meantime, my friend’s prayer perches like a soft bird on my shoulder, like the gentle animals to whom Saint Francis is said to have preached the gospel. I always thought they must have known it already, that Good News that we humans try to pass on to each other in broken English and Spanish and Italian. I think the birds are born knowing it. I think that’s what they sing to each other about, on these April mornings when I’ve dared to leave my bedroom window open a crack, their sweet songs reaching me in my slumber and cheering me for the day ahead.

I think the birds of Assisi already knew the gospel, but I think they still listened intently to Francis as he preached, their little heads tilted as the medieval Italian words filled their ears. Jesus referenced birds when he said, “Your heavenly Father knows what you need.” He already knows. But we pray for each other anyway. I imagine the great-great-great — and far beyond that — great-grandchildren of Francis’s sparrows tilting their heads to listen to my friend as she prays by the slender cypress trees. And God is there, too, his head inclined, nodding intently, even though he already knows.


You can read more of Judith’s poetry and prose, including updates of her month in Italy, at her website,