Healing the Split between Spirit and Nature

By Heffern, Rich | National Catholic Reporter, May 27, 2011 | Go to article overview

Healing the Split between Spirit and Nature


Heffern, Rich, National Catholic Reporter


Federico Fellini's beautiful 1963 film "8 1/2" is an autobiographical story about a director, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who is trying to complete his new film. As he tries to escape pressures by entering a fantasy world, incidents in the film repeatedly link to childhood memories, showing how his Catholic upbringing shaped his life.

One scene involves an odd incantation. At a party, a magician performs with a clairvoyant who demonstrates her ability to read people's thoughts. A skeptical Guido agrees to be a subject. The clairvoyant studies his face and then writes the words "ASA NISI MASA" on a blackboard. Fellini then cuts to a brief flashback of Guido's childhood. "Asa Nisi Masa" is a bedtime chant the children would say, a phrase with the power to make the eyes of a wall portrait come to life.

The chant is children's play language, pig Latin. When each second syllable is dropped, we have the word anima. Fellini was interested in the work of Carl Jung, who used the word anima to describe the personification of female characteristics in the male. It's a reference to Guido's confusion about women; the film shows how the many women in his life influence his thoughts and actions.

The word anima means soul or life force. It's what gives zest and lift to our lives.

I head-over-heels befriended a young woman who lived upstairs from my first apartment in college. Her name was Christina. Her eyes flashed with wit and intelligence. She had an ironic mouth, a wry humor, a stalwart strength, a storming and irreverent mind. If the moon had a sister, Christina was the dark-haired and more stimulating of the two. Lost in the razzle-dazzle shock that is late adolescence, I wouldn't have been surprised if she had suddenly unfolded filmy butterfly wings and fluttered up off into the evening. I wanted nothing less than to gather her silver music, her darkness into my hands, and take tentative sips.

One summer evening when it was too hot indoors, we sat, Christina and I, in a back alleyway under a buzzing neon billboard and talked, just talked, until well past midnight, about things we discovered we both happened to treasure--Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast fantasies, Captain Nemo, Ray Bradbury, calling butterflies "flutterbys," about outrageous thoughts and madcap schemes. That she liked what I liked and thought funny what I chuckled at--moreover that she even fancied, just like me, crunchy peanut butter spread over toast--these were discoveries. Not only did I share the planet with mysterious creatures like her, but in important ways we were kith and kin.

We related to each other as equals. …

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