On family history: Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

Remember Joan Didion and her family history? Here is another American writer, a younger one, Elizabeth Gilbert. She is the author of the successful Eat, Pray, Love – a book about a year she spent in Rome, an Indian ashram, and Bali.

Frankly, pure pleasure is not my cultural paradigm. I come from a long line of superconscientious people. My mother’s family were Swedish immigrant farmers, who look in their photographs like, if they’d ever even seen something pleasurable, they might have stomped on it with their hobnailed boots. (My uncle calls the whole lot of them “oxen.”) My father’s side of the family were English Puritans, those great goofy lovers of fun. If I look on my dad’s family tree all the way back to the seventeenth century, I can actually find Puritan relatives with names like Diligence and Meekness.

(Author photo: thanks to  Steve Jurvetson!)

Myself, I know of no such exotic names among my ancestors. I always assume that, if I went digging into those old and musty parish records, I would find generations and generations of unassuming names such as Maria and Giovanna.

In fact, my only relative of any notoriety seems to have been the Blessed Giovanna Maria Bonomo, who lived in the 17th century. (For readers with a non-Catholic education: a “blessed” – “beatus” or “beata” in Latin – is someone on the third of the four steps required to be canonized as a Catholic saint: see Beatification). A Benedectine nun since the age of 15, Giovanna Bonomo seems to have been a mystic and a hothead: considered a madwoman, she was denied the Holy Communion by her confessor, and for several years was not allowed not meet visitors in the parlatory or write letters. Later in life, as her ecstasies subsided (or maybe as her prayers to go into ecstasy only at night, so that she may live a normal life during the day, were answered), she was readmitted to her convent’s rites, and once rehabilitated performed many deeds of charity. In her last decades, she was elected abbess and prioress. Her most important teaching to her sisters, apparently, was that sanctity consists not in doing great things, but in doing simple and common things with perfect patience and dedication.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a statue of her was erected in the town of Asiago, in a small square facing the home where she is said to have been born. Of course, a few years later, the town was practically razed to the ground in a furious bombing, during the senseless carnage of World War I. When I was a child, one could still buy postcards showing her statue, miracolously standing in the middle of the rubble of the surrounding houses, unscathed, save for the broken tip of a little finger.

Beata Bonomo 1

Beata Bonomo 2

One thought on “On family history: Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

  1. If I understand this correctly, your most illustrious relative is also the least likely to be your ancestor – unless Beata Bonomo got a waiver on chastity matters when she took her vows.

    Many breed because they view children as a bridge to immortality. So I find kind of funny that among all your distant relatives, the one who succeeded in her bid for immortality was precisely who left no progeny behind.

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