The Wisdom of Ristretto

Our recent vacation in Italy reminded me of how the Europeans--in comparison to us Americans--tend to live "smaller." Now, by "smaller" I'm speaking merely volume-wise: their cars and roads are smaller, so too are their living spaces, appliances, and meal-portions. Even their coffee! How often did I frequent Italian coffee bars and order a "coffee", knowing full well that what I'd receive was a single shot of espresso, a concentrated dose of sheer coffee goodness called a "ristretto". This was no giant mug o' coffee, American style, but a taste of pure roasted loveliness. Quality--lovely, wonderful, tantalizingly tiny--quality; not quantity.

In America, with its giant expanses (fly over portions of the West and you're still stunned by the immensity of our land), its citizenly corpulence, its buy-one-get-one-free mentality, and, above all, its super-sizing of food and drink, you realize how much the bigger-is-better mindset rules. If something's good in and of itself, it can only be better in greater volume, right? Right?! Or if something's average, just give me twice as much and it will get better, right? Right?!

The Europeans' take on pleasure doesn't seem to run along these lines. There's still a respectful restraint, a quality of life, a "dolce vita" that doesn't demand super-sizing in order to be fulfilling. It's wonderful and challenging, for this American, at least, to take to heart. And, interestingly enough, this European respect for smallness reminds me of much biblical teaching on gluttony. Proverbs' wisdom warns against indiscriminate socializing with those who know no restraint in their eating and drinking habits. Presumably, those who do not have these appetites under control will lack self-discipline in other areas as well.

It's been interesting to me to see the devolution of "sin" language in our secular culture. Too often such language limits itself in popular parlance to desserts: "sinfully delicious" or "temptingly rich." But there's a vestige of wisdom and biblical morality here: over-the-top indulgence in rich foods is a form of gluttony, one of the classic seven deadly sins. What's needed is proper restraint, a "ristretto" approach to life that values God's good gifts in moderation, gives thanks for tastes of life's goodness without a need to super-size them.

I'll close with a story from C.S. Lewis' adult science fiction novel, Perelandra. The protagonist space traveler, Ransom, lands on Venus and samples the most amazing indigenous fruit, which is so luscious it defies description. Lewis writes:
"As [Ransom] let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favor of tasting the miracle again...all seemed to commend the action. Yet something seemed opposed to this 'reason'. It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity--like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day."
Travel in Europe and Lewis' Perelandra remind us of the wisdom of restraint, of biblical contentment. Yes, we're meant to enjoy God's good gifts, but in moderation. "Ristretto" is a word not just for espresso, but for life. You see, sometimes less is better.

Some Flavors From "A Taste of Italy"

Last night, my family and I returned from 10 days in Italy. It was a great trip--we made all our connections on time, had good weather, stayed healthy, and managed to end the trip still liking each other. We're thankful. Now, while the thoughts and impressions are fresh, I'd like to share them with you. Consider this your own little taste of what we enjoyed. Italy for us was a flavorful buffet, a feast of experiences to whet the appetite for more extensive indulgence at another time.

I find foreign travel to be stretching: it introduces new rhythms and it expands our views of the world, ourselves, and God. Pulling us out of our comfortable, familiar routines, travel abroad requires us to trust God in ways we might not while home. Having said that, it isn't always easy and it's not necessarily convenient. But for us, it was well worth it.

Getting off the plane in Rome, hearing the melodic lilt of Italian, puzzling through the unfamiliar signs and advertisements, all of it induced the thought: "It's good to be overseas again." I'll spare you the travelogue. But here are some quick tastes for your sampling...

Touring Italy, much like my recent trip to Sonoma County in California, epitomized the divine-human harmony of good stewardship of the land. You observe how carefully the Tuscans cultivate their olive orchards and vineyards and it's clear they respect and rely upon their rich, fertile soil.

Rome's modernity competes with its history. Traffic surges around the ancient city's Forum, Colosseum, and Pantheon (the only building on earth used continuously for over 2000 years). Wherever one turns, Rome reveals layers of proud history, reminding us how fleeting is our pursuit of power and fame. Ancient Caesar's glory is modern Roman rubble.

More than once I was reminded of the faithfulness and courage of early Christians. A prominent cross stands at one of the entrances to the Colosseum floor, recalling martyrs who gave their lives for Christ in the sadistic Roman "games." We visited the Church of St. Peter in Chains and saw the handcuffs used to lead the Apostle to his execution. We were also humbled by the symbol of the way he was killed (the upside-down cross).

"La Dolce Vita", the sweet life, is so much a part of Italy. We sampled and savored good food, learned to linger longer over our meals, drank surprisingly consistent (and cheap!) espressos and cappuccini (plural, you know). The Italians appreciate quality, if not quantity (no super-sizing here!). Fashion and style were everywhere (challenging us to take just a little more care in the way we present ourselves). A few examples of our compatriots' cultural insensitivity recalled to us the importance of being a good ambassador abroad--for our country, certainly, but also for Christ's kingdom. And, coming from a land of increasing cultural homogeneity, Italy's regional differences impressed us.

What sites will stay with us? Michelangelo's David in the Florence Accademia we found surprisingly moving. The great sculptor captured the beauty, strength, and vulnerability not only of the human body, but also of young David preparing to battle Goliath. David's knit brow, the veins on his arm, even his extended lower torso (inhaling as he readies for the fight?) were utterly captivating--and all in marble. If "man is the measure"--the slogan of the Renaissance which inspired Michelangelo's work--it's nevertheless man's Creator who gets the credit for the beautiful crafting of our human bodies.

We spent a day traveling to Naples and Pompeii, where we saw the dramatic destruction of an entire first century town by the eruption of Vesuvius (still active and potentially menacing). While it was fascinating to walk the streets of the city, I was struck by the scale of the tragedy (a whole town and its inhabitants buried by ash mixed with rain, paralyzed in the positions in which they perished).

We spent the last few days in Venice, which is predictably romantic and surprisingly smelly. As travel guru Rick Steves observes, Venice faces a modern dilemma: its island isolation (there are no cars of any kind) makes it cost prohibitive for locals to live. It's a city slowly sinking into the mud and facing constant need for renovation and modernization. Will Venice become a tourist's Disneyland, Steves wonders?

Finally, one aha for me was learning that the form of the cross-shaped Christian basilica was based on the prior pagan architecture of the most prominent building in town, where magistrates gathered to hear cases and convene meetings. This goes to show you that the church has been interacting with secular culture since its beginning, interweaving its own values with cultural forms and styles familiar to the people of its day.

A postscript: gelato. I had no idea it was this good in Italy--nor did my family. The finest is in Florence, with one highlight for me being fresh peach, with bits of peach suspended in the creamy mix. Bravissimo!