UPTERGROVE, Ontario — Ordinary lives, however quiet or unnoticed, are a sequence of miracles, tragedies and triumphs. Everyone stumbles into hell and is repeatedly resurrected into ultimate beauty.
But that’s not the language of daily life. Instead, talk focuses on the weather, old times and how things have changed. The news dismays. There is muttering about a narrow range of acceptable topics. And love, death, the communion of the saints, the body of Christ, transcendence and eternity, redemption and resurrection are uncertain ground for cautious, ordinary pilgrims.
Which is why people need Father Pier Giorgio Di Cicco, priest, poet and essayist. Di Cicco lives inside the language of holy mysteries and understands daily life in terms of the common quest for transcendence.
“Before you’re a saint, you have to become a mystic,” Di Cicco said over fried eggs in his red brick rectory in the middle of farm country north of Lake Simcoe 85 miles from Toronto.
Di Cicco was Toronto’s second poet laureate, holding the post from 2004 to 2009. In addition to at least 20 volumes of poetry, he is the author of “Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City,” a thin volume of crystallized insights into the challenge of contemporary urban life.
Since the early 2000s he has consulted with municipal and regional governments across Canada and the United States, helping civil servants and politicians think about their jurisdictions as more than infrastructure, architecture, markets and regulations. He talks to planners, architects and geographers about what they do as a contribution to the culture of encounter.
He calls himself “a creative cities exponent with a Gospel mandate underneath.”
Di Cicco is proud of that bit about a Gospel mandate. With friends such as urban thinker Richard Florida, broadcasting mogul Moses Znaimer and former Toronto mayor David Crombie, Di Cicco has snuck his Gospel sensibility into conversations at the highest levels about how people live in cities.
In “Municipal Mind” Di Cicco urges civic leaders to fall in love.
“People who are not in love are irresponsible,” he writes. “A town that is not in love with itself is irresponsible, and civically apt for mistakes. Responsibility is a cold duty. It inspires no one. A citizenry is incited to action by the eros of mutual care, by having a common object of love — their city.”
If there’s any irony in an urban thinker and poet living as resident priest at St. Columbkille Church in Uptergrove, Di Cicco doesn’t acknowledge it. Surrounded by farm country, he’s more surprised to find that the area’s Irish families have so easily accepted an Italian priest.
Born in Arezzo, an hour south of Florence, Italy, Di Cicco arrived in Canada with his family as a 3-year-old in 1952, part of the post-World War II immigration wave. He grew up in Toronto, Montreal and Baltimore. He tended bar and studied literature at the University of Toronto, publishing poetry in chapbooks available in literary haunts near the campus. By 1978 he was not only an established voice in a generation of emerging poets, he was editor of a significant volume of Italian-Canadian poetry called “Roman Candles.”
Then he went away.
Di Cicco vacated his literary career in the 1980s to become an Augustinian monk. But life in the monastery was in flux then, and Di Cicco found himself out of tune with some of the changes. He left the order, became a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto and gradually rediscovered his lyric voice.
He also, at 58, started playing trumpet, learning to improvise. In the rectory’s front room are a few of his 13 trumpets along with sheet music, LPs and unpacked boxes of books.
Di Cicco’s career may sound a bit too romantic for a respectable novel. But the reality of his life is tied to the most ordinary experience of any parish priest.
A life dedicated to being with people as they face their ultimate destiny is behind his latest book of poetry, “My Life Without Me.” Its 60 poems face all manner of disembodied experience — from the onset of dementia to how human lives are absorbed into the internet.
“I was never in my body, and I drifted through others like wind through sheaves of wheat, in the exoskeleton of faith,” he writes in “Lyric For The Soul’s Confections.”
Di Cicco can accept Alzheimer’s disease with more equanimity than the culture’s preference for the Web. “The cyberworld is evacuating the physical world,” he says.
He sees the empty streets of towns, villages and cities after 8 p.m. and wonders how people will ever know or experience the body of Christ if they do not know themselves as real people — humans who can only know themselves by knowing others. “The genius of casual encounters in the incarnate realm,” are the only thing Di Cicco knows that can keep people human. As humanity is lost, so is Christ.
People now face “the anti-Christ in the guise of a microchip,” Di Cicco said. “We’ve been very naive and stupid about it.
“People still suppose that technology services them,” he added, rolling his eyes. “We no longer access the Web. We are the Web.”
His own solution is to offer up his struggles — loneliness, failing memory, a sense of being out of place in this world — to God.
“When you offer it up to God, you shorten the grieving process. What you heal in yourself you heal in the body of Christ.”