When we begin to refashion things in our image rather than in God’s, we ourselves become displaced and disjointed. Strangely enough, by asserting only our humanity, we lose what makes us essentially and beautifully human…
In truth, nature begins to relate to us only when we begin to indwell it, when culture begins in it. Culture then develops, and, bit by bit, nature is refashioned. We create our own world, shaped by thoughts and controlled not merely by natural urges but by ends that we set to serve ourselves as intellectual and spiritual beings, an environment that is related to us and brought into being by us.—Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como
There’s a pretty and interesting little town (tiny by Houston standards) in Park County, Colorado, named Como after the Italian place of origin of its original inhabitants who immigrated to America to mine the region. The town sits at a little over 9,800 feet above sea level and commands a stunning view of South Park, one of the most open and dramatic high valleys in all of the Rocky Mountains. The name “park” comes, originally, from the French fur trappers and explorers, finding huge and open areas throughout the Rockies, long before the Americans arrived on the front range. Though much of this area remains pristine, it would’ve been a glimpse of heaven for the French who saw this area long before the roads and wires crisscrossed it.
Because of its proximity to Fairplay, Colorado, I see Como, just to the north of US-285 at least ten or more times a year. I’ve driven into and around the town several times as well. For me, as odd as it might seem, it serves as a necessary and happy reminder of one of the greatest men ever produced by Como, Italy: Romano Guardini. It strikes me every time I pass near the mountain town of Como—to the west of the equally interesting village of Jefferson—that those who migrated to Colorado in the late 1800s probably knew the Guardinis, and Romano Guardini’s mom and dad might very well have shopped at the same venues and attended the same parish in the mother country as those who came to America.
The Guardinis, of course, ended up moving to Germany, and Romano Guardini is properly remembered more as a German figure than an Italian one. Yet, his understanding of Lake Como remained a vital and central place in his own understanding of existence itself. It was for Romano Guardini not just his ancestral home, but his spiritual one. His Letters from Lake Como reveal the deep pain he felt at the industrialization of the area, the rise of fascism and business, remaking the town into the image of the Machine rather than in the image of God’s Eden. In his Letters, one already finds the love of place that Willa Cather exhibited in her novels about Nebraska and Russell Kirk in his short stories about Michigan. There was a love of region, not because of the soil, but, in many ways, despite it. That is, the soil became a means to an end, the end being either that of the Good or that of the Ill.
How vastly different, though, is Como, Italy, from Como, Colorado. While one might describe Como, Colorado, as stunning, no one would mistake it for its namesake, famous for its lush landscapes, abundant water, and vast tourist industry. The Italian version even sits at a mere 700 feet above sea level. Como, Colorado, is almost two miles higher than its Italian namesake. Alpine and dry, Como, Colorado, and its 900 residents see almost every drop of rain that falls on them claimed by Denver, far, far to the east. None of the residents of the area appreciates Denver’s claims, but they reluctantly recognize the legal validity of them, established well more than a century ago by businessmen and bureaucrats who felt they knew best how to rule… the people be damned.
What the two Comos each have in common, though, is a reverence for setting and drama of place. Each sits as a jewel in nature herself. Before industry invaded the Italian region around Lake Como, Guardini believed it near edenic, as “here was nature indwelt by humanity.” The human person resided lovingly—perhaps, incarnationally—with his surroundings. He did not seek to destroy, dominate, or mock it, but, rather, he sought to live as God commanded, as an agent endowed with free will but directed to steward the resources. The ancient Greek labeled this a virtue, temperance—the employment and enjoyment of the created goods for the good.
In the Catholic Mass, we see something similar. “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through Your goodness we have received the bread we offer You: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” Those of us blessed to be Roman Catholic have heard these words to such an extent that we have most likely come to take them for granted. Yet, in them, resides almost all of the mystery of human existence in this world, as Guardini seems to have understood in looking at Lake Como. God creates the seeds of life, we cultivate those seeds and refashion them to our use. If that use is good, God blesses our art.
It is worth remembering that God does not create halfway. In the New Testament, Christian Evangelists write of Jesus at Cana, creating not just the best wine, but so much that it is level with the brim of the cistern, and, in the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, creating more than the crowd needs. God’s creation is nothing short of astoundingly abundant. In the first chapter of Genesis, Moses tells us that when God creates life, He creates not just life, but life within life, each living thing able to multiply in its fruitfulness. God does not just create: He creates that which can procreate.
As true and humane artists—what J.R.R. Tolkien referred to as subcreation—we refashion creation only to the extent that it allows us to live more fully, more wholly, and more completely. It is not only good but to our benefit not to transcend the limitations of the good, the true, and the beautiful. When we begin to refashion things in our image rather than in God’s, we ourselves become displaced and disjointed. Strangely enough, by asserting only our humanity, we lose what makes us essentially and beautifully human. Such was what Guardini saw in the transformation of Lake Como in the 1920s.
Whatever the Fascists and industrialists did to Lake Como, its essential beauty remained and remains. There, in that place, resides the haunting good of women and men who have loved, traded, created, and procreated. The same is true of Como, Colorado. Whatever ill man has done, at the heart of each is the goodness—not only of God’s work but, when properly understood, of man’s as well.
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