Elisa Fuksas (Photo: Marco Cella)

Elisa Fuksas: "I want to see"

She was raised in a context that was distant from the church. In November Traces, author Elisa Fuksas describes the path that led her to baptism. And, above all, what began after that step: “Simply living.”

She sits at a little table in a café in the heart of Rome and takes off her mask. It matches her black pants and jacket. Her eyes are smiling, but her first comment is about the pandemic. “Man, this Covid. Aren't you afraid?”
Young and beautiful with a famous last name. Elisa Fuksas, the daughter of lauded architect Massimiliano Fuksas, met us in the throes of the release of her latest book, Ama e fai quello che vuoi (Love and do what you want), and of her documentary to be presented at the Venice Film Festival, iSola. They both recount the last three years of her life. In her book, she explains how she, a liberal, left-wing daughter of well-off Rome, was comfortably agnostic until she suddenly (but not out of the blue) started down the path to receiving the sacrament of baptism. The documentary is made up of clips she herself recorded–with her cell phone–during the lockdown, right before which she was diagnosed with a tumor in her thyroid. The world stopped, and she found herself alone at home with her diagnosis and her fears about the spread of Covid. Then more news: a dear friend of hers who lives in Milan was also ill with a tumor.
In the documentary, Elisa captures life, emotions, and her dog Stella, daily life within the enormity of the pandemic. Behind it all, she subtly suggests an experience of faith, a love story that changed the way she looks at herself and the world, despite the fact that it all started with a betrayal. While she was living with Giacomo, an older man with two children, Luca asked her to marry him. She replied, “But you already tried that and it didn't work.” He said, “I'm serious. A church wedding and everything.” And almost out of nowhere, a thought came into Elisa's head: “But I'm not even baptized....” Our interview with Elisa starts here, at that mysterious (and apparently insignificant) moment.

Who were you at that moment? Where did that thought come from?
Now, I can say that it came–which only became clearer to me recently– out of a period in which I had begun to ask questions. I had just finished a documentary called Albe – A Life Beyond Earth, which told the story of seven people from Rome who believe that they have daily interactions with aliens. They are simple people, less fortunate people, so their capacity to have these visions becomes a kind of redemption for them. They feel like the keepers of a great secret: we are not alone in the universe. Today, I can say that, too, is a kind of religiosity. It involves the need for something beyond, and I understood the attraction. While I was working on it, I met a Sardinian priest who was a little strange. As I listened to him, I found myself in tears. I was afraid. He asked me what I was afraid of. I answered, “of dying.” He replied, “Get baptized and you will no longer be afraid.” That was quite awhile before Luca asked me to marry him.

A thought that became a desire...
I went searching on Google for the “meaning of baptism,” “how to become Catholic,” “what to do to be baptized,” “being baptized as an adult”... I didn't know anything. I found out that the Gospels were part of the Bible, that the Song of Songs was a sacred text. It was crazy, an unbelievable ignorance. Even Facebook's algorithms picked up on the change: it stopped showing me ads for contraceptives and instead began showing information about trips to Jerusalem and books by and about the pope.

A scene from iSola

In the book, you describe several meetings with Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, the archbishop of Florence.
He is a friend of my parents. That is one of the advantages of being the “daughter of....” And now he is my friend, too.

He entrusted you to the care of Fr. Elia Carrai, a young priest who became an important friend for you.
Yes, the first thing I noticed about him were his Vans shoes and hipster glasses. “A priest can't dress like a hipster.” I was full of prejudices.

You started a faith journey with him.
Yes, we met and wrote back and forth. We spoke and thought together. He suggested books for me to read. I told him what was happening to me, which is what I talk about in the book: my ex still camping out at my house, my relationship with Luca and his children, and the sickness and death of my grandmother, as well as my clumsy attempts to help at the soup kitchen and when I discovered all-night adoration at the churches in Rome. At a certain point, Fr. Elia wrote to me, “It is not just a question of making certain decisions, but of your freedom being more and more available to discover and adhere to the good design there is for your life.” I tried to do that.

In one conversation with the cardinal, you say you are obsessed with “truly becoming aware of others.” What does that have to do with your discovery of the faith?
My problem, which I think is fairly common, is that I use others a little bit like a screen onto which I project my own stories. I don't get to know you because I am interested in how you are different, but so that I can invade you with my own ego and, in looking at you, fall in love with myself. Discovering that there is an Other who is calling you and truly loves you; well, to me that was an irresistible temptation. At a certain point I said to myself: “I want to see if I am also capable of that.”

You were born and grew up in a context that was distant from the Church.
Yes, I had to have many things stripped away. I was very closed in many ways, with a lot of preconceptions. Everyone has his own history, and I have mine. I found a place of freedom in the church, which was the last place I would've looked for it.

Why not?
Compared to the conformism among my friends and that whole world I come from, when I speak with Fr. Elia, it's like talking to a young “punk.” I envy him a little. He has a freedom I don't have and which I wonder whether I will ever be able to experience.

What kind of freedom do you mean?
In the beginning, with the voyeurism typical of one who knows nothing, I wondered, “Has he ever fallen in love? How can he manage celibacy?” These were the somewhat infantile questions that I asked him, anyway. In response, he told me a story that had almost a medieval feel to it: an experience more powerful than I ever could have dreamed of. There was a girl whom he never even touched... He said that if things had gone differently, his relationship with that girl would have reduced everything to possessiveness. He described a love that, in just hearing about it, you fall in love with. I was moved.

Why does Fr. Elia's life make you envious?
I make a bit of a joke and say that the real “free love” is the one proposed by the church. I grew up thinking of a kind of relationship in which the premise is that it is not free. Two people are together and, in the end, they don't want anything from each other. They do not accept that everything is simply a transaction. Lord, I don't know if that transaction allows you to have a baby... But it is so extreme to live, to be here right now, to be able to think, to write, to love... And I want to live life to the max, down to the bottom. So, then, if I love you, I take all of you. I take your sickness, your fears, your children... I take you. This is delicate territory, and I don't want to judge anyone. But I can, based on what I have seen in my life, say this: that attitude seems freer to me than what a bourgeois life offers.

How do people react when you tell them that you became a Catholic?
I never imagined that it would amaze, shock, wound, or offend people, even disappoint them. It was odd, but sometimes also amusing–a few friends asked if I was having some kind of crisis, if I was uncovering something that happened to me as a child, maybe that I had been adopted...

And you replied?
I say, “No, look, it really happened,” even if it engenders scandal and envy. People say, “oh, blessed are you who can believe,” as if it were something simple or, even worse, predetermined; in the end, in a certain sense, life is harder now. Not because I lost anything: I am more equipped to understand the world. But the point is that now everything has to have meaning. My life is much more anguished. I am not seeking answers because the questions are continuously opening wider. But I seek meaning, and the world, our society, makes it very hard to find meaning.

But if it is more difficult, how is there an advantage?
Oh, of course there is. Because, within the mess lies a hopeful prospect, and that gives you greater strength. I, anyway, live better because I feel alive, I really feel things. God brings you to live more deeply. I need to be connected to the mystery every day and go back to it as often as I want and can. The other day, at a book presentation, a lady asked me, “How do you think you will continue on this path? Have you thought of being a nun?” I said, “No!” I could never give up Stella, my dog [she laughs]. But I find it amusing that someone asked me that question. Because, if you ask me, continuing on this path simply means living. Even though...

Even though?
My friends do not believe. I do not have anyone with whom I speak about or share certain moments. I've often asked myself, “When will I be able to stick with someone? To share?” With this book, I am receiving messages from people I'd never have imagined I would: priests, believers, people who are sick, an entire world, a world that is not my own. If a girl writes to you saying that reading what you wrote prompted her to relive a very similar journey, you understand the intensity of what you wrote. Not because it was I who did it, but because it is powerful as an undeniable fact. It is a history that connects us even if it is within a context that tends to distance us. I thought I'd have to seek out my companions in faith, but it seems to me, in the end, it is an opposite motion: others are coming to me. I am amazed by this miracle. It is an adventure, and I do not know where it will carry me. When I think I've understood, there is a kind of intelligence that pushes me further, putting me back into the game.

In the book, you describe reading The Religious Sense. You write that the way Fr. Giussani explains wonder was striking for you.
I found in him a capacity to describe in a human way something that is beyond human. He explains how one draws close to Jesus, showing how it is like a person you fall in love with. That, too, stirred a kind of envy in me. Giussani proposes a love that is continually renewed thanks to wonder. All of us, instead, have experienced the opposite: things are born, live, and then, in the end, die. It's entropy. Instead, love for Jesus is a love that overcomes the laws of nature. That is what I am looking for in relationships. I want to fall in love like that. I want nothing less. It's hard. It takes a lot of work.

In your film, which depicts your time in lockdown, you say that it was a time of verification of your faith. How so?
It's a test I gave myself. After all, when everything is going well, it's easy to believe. You have your life, and then you add an extra level, the religious level. I asked myself: Does your faith hold up in a time of difficulty like this?

How could you tell if you passed the test?
Instead of hating, ranting, and asking Why me?, I said to myself, “OK, if this is happening, it means I need to learn something, to discover an- other dimension of myself to get through it–or not get through it.”

What have you discovered?

Suffering and death have always terrified me. During the period of the lockdown, death was not an abstract idea. I had to come to terms with it. And these are also central aspects of Christianity. I do not think it was by chance that I chose a religion founded on the Resurrection at Easter.

Both the book and the film end with you saying, “I am still afraid to die. I am still afraid to live. But now, perhaps, a little less so.” What has that “a little less” meant for you?
On the night of Easter 2019, I received the sacrament of baptism, in which, we say, the old woman in me died. Exactly 365 days later, I had to have a tumor removed. I thought, “Last year it was a symbolic death. This year? Will I really die?” When I went into the hospital room, I saw a crucifix on the wall. For the first time, I didn't see it as a decoration, a symbol, or a superstitious sign. I saw it rather as two Cartesian axes that intersect, creating a new space. And I realized that this new world order according to which I had started to see things, has changed me. It made me want to run to meet what was about to happen with a somewhat daft enthusiasm. This is the advantage we talked about earlier. In some way, however it happens, this familiarity with life places you in a different position. That “a little less” contains a marginal amount, one grain of rice, just a trifle extra that makes me say: all things considered, I did the right thing.