When in Rome, why choose vanilla?

I’d start with stracciatella. It’s such a fun word to pronounce, and what’s there to explain? Other than to say, “It’s chocolate chip.” Of course, they’d want to know how that was different from, the similar looking, bacio, and I’d explain that it was made with the famous chocolates from Perugia. Over here was cioccolato al arancia, dark chocolate with orange flavoring. Of course pistacchio was pistachio. Where’d they think we got it from? Niocciola was hazelnut, all by itself.

Then there were all the fruit flavors to translate for my guests. Fragola was strawberry. No, lampone was raspberry. Albicocca was apricot. Yes, you’re right. Pera means pear. Very subtle taste. Pesca is peach, but make sure you don’t say "pesce," because they will laugh at the idea of fish flavored ice cream.

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Why was I translating gelati into ice creams? Because I was a seminarian in Rome, and someone’s sister-in-law, who had a cousin, who used to work with my aunt, said that she’d told them that, if they came to Rome, I’d be happy to show them around. And what’s a trip to Rome without a stop at Giolitti?

I’d encourage the flavors one doesn’t find anywhere else. Zuppa inglesi, does indeed translate as English soup, but it’s based upon the English sweet truffle, with custard and madeira wine. I love malaga, rum raisin. Yes, they’ll let you taste it first. That’s what the little spoons are for. No, crema is not vanilla. It’s a custard egg cream.

Who can count how many flavors I translated. Yes, limone is lemon. Rather like a tart sherbet. This time of year, I suggest melone, which is cantaloupe, or cocomero, watermelon. So light and refreshing.

Somewhere up in the 30s, I’d pause, waiting for the last person to have found his or her flavor. Often, it was the one who didn’t take any of the tastings. “I’ll just have vanilla.”

“Vanilla?”

“Yes, vanilla. I’m pretty sure that I will like vanilla.”

There’s a reason that they say, “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” Otherwise, you’re just carrying Topeka around in your pocket. And if you want spaghetti with meat balls, or worse, a hamburger, you need not venture beyond your local mall. If you want a red sauce on a hot summer night, try puttanesca. It’s made with capers and anchovies. And you’ll never forget having farfalle in a salmon cream sauce on a Sunday afternoon terrace in Fiesole.

Struggle for just a moment with the paradox created by the readings chosen, and paired, by the church. Isaiah’s God announces that

I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the Lord (66:18, 20).
 

This comforting prophecy seems to suggest that the path of salvation is broad and well-travelled. It reads so closely to the spirit of our age. We like to say, “Everyone is special,” just as we sing, “All are welcome.”

But Jesus himself seems to jar the bonhomie when he enjoins:

Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough (Lk 13: 24).  

 

The contrast runs deeper than that of conservative or liberal Christian. We all have our favorite Scriptures to quote, even the devil himself. It is only a question of emphasis? Or is there a vital tension, needing to be sustained, between the mercy and the justice of God?

We all want mercy for ourselves yet would be rather disappointed in a God who did not establish justice on the earth. How do we expect God to do both?

In God, justice and mercy are balanced, because God gives both. Some Christians are convinced that there is no hell and they are more than doubtful about the possibility of purgatory. Neither conform to their notion of God’s mercy. But justice and mercy are not goals that God sets for himself. They simply are who God is.

God is always ready to receive, to be merciful, but we truly can close our lives to mercy and to justice. Bella Italia isn’t any less beautiful because we choose to shut our eyes. Close yourself, refuse to expand, and la dolce vita will never come your way. We can close ourselves to the best of this life, and, however else we define sin, it is surely that. It is, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, “the offer of grace, usually refused.” What we choose now, determines our destiny. So why does Jesus speak of a narrow gate? Because our energies must be focused upon the good, not dissipated by disorder and sin.

Purgatory isn’t a way for God to keep up standards, to maintain justice while showing mercy. Purgatory is God’s mercy opening up the rivulets we’ve all but closed. Purgatory is God saying to sad-faced Miss Vanilla, “Won’t you try a taste of my zabaione? It’s a lot like egg nog.

We’re not sure that anyone is in hell, but the church insists that hell is a real possibility. Why? Because if you cannot say “no” to God—really say “no”—and have that response accepted, then you are nothing more than a distant extension of whatever stands at the core of the universe. You are not someone who choses, in freedom, to love, or not to love, God.  

God doesn’t narrow the gate; God doesn’t close the gate. Yet the gate is indeed narrow, and it may well swing shut. Not because of who God is. Because of who we become. Because life is like a gelateria. You only taste if you are willing to risk.

Isaiah 66: 18-21  Hebrews 12: 5-7, 11-13  Luke 13: 20-30

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