More than 50 years ago, I was fascinated by Carlo Coccioli’s earlier novel, Manuel the Mexican. I enjoyed it both for its impressionistic style and for its portrayal of the Mexican culture, but mainly for its interesting confluence of the Aztec and Christian religions.
So I sought out a new work, The White Stone, originally published in Paris in 1958. It was about an Italian priest, Ardito Piccardi and his crisis of faith. But I also learned there was a companion novel, Heaven and Earth, about the same priest’s life prior to that described in The White Stone. So I waited to discover that first novel on the remainder shelves. And waited, and waited…and never did find it.
Now, I have finally stopped waiting. I have read The White Stone.
This is the story of what happened to Ardito during World War II. As the book opens, he has just lost his faith because he prayed to God that he be executed to save local peasant youths who have been caught sabotaging a railroad, only to have a German officer pardon the youths without executing Ardito. In somewhat confused thinking, typical perhaps of Coccioli, the Nazi officer has negated Ardito’s faith in God by being the one, rather than God, who has done the pardoning. Sent north to a prison camp in Germany, Ardito meets a second priest, Augustin Nevers, who has lost his faith because he is gay, another familiar theme of the author, who is himself gay.
The two priests have interesting theological discussions while they are prisoners. Ardito does not want his friend to lose his vocation, even though he has lost his own. He tells the priest that he will be judged “not for what you are (a homosexual) but for the way in which you have lived.” And Augustin writes of Ardito: “Yet the man he had become retained the spiritual habits of his former life….What I mean…is that the spirituality of this priest who ceased to believe in God became earthly, changed into flesh, took on human form. [And yet] having lost God had not lost the necessity of him.”
The purpose of their discussions seems to be to deepen Ardito’s character rather than to explore a contrast between the two priests. Thus, Augustin asks. “Why do you impose on me a faith which you have renounced?” And Ardito replies: “I did not renounce my faith. A day came when I found myself emptied of it.”
While a prisoner, Ardito also writes: “God only existed because I thought that I believed in him. I have therefore not destroyed God; I have destroyed only my illusion.” Yet, as this novel demonstrates, he still wishes that he could believe.
And we soon are following only Ardito, as he escapes from the Nazi prison camp and hides in the woods. He has escaped with an unsavory but good-intentioned Croatian, another complex characterization that expands on the novel’s tension between goodness and evil.
Ardito then joins a larger group of escapees, who later claim that he has saved them from the Germans through a “miracle” that he has no memory of. The men pray with him and then, as in a dream he himself has, say he rose a meter off the ground in front of the pursuing German soldiers, which then turned back. Thus, this good priest, who still prays, changes reality, even if he no longer believes in God—and cannot himself believe in this “miracle.”
To back up, the entire story of Ardito is being told by a narrator called, “C.” (the implication is Coccioli) who knew Ardito when he was a youth, and is now seeking to learn Ardito’s fate after the priest was taken away to the German prison camp. This information comes to C. in the form of letters, journals, and diaries written by Ardito and those he encountered, sources that C. has tracked down. Thus, we are learning about Ardito long after the fact, allowing them (and the author) to lend a helpful perspective to his adventures.
In an interlude, Ardito is living in Paris in 1950. He begins by saying: “Before, my religion was a material thing. I had discovered God through Satan. I served God, but I lived in the reality of Satan. He was everything: the flesh and its torments….My religion was too influenced by Satan to be metaphysical.” In Paris, a Mr. Page approaches him. Page introduces the idea of service, and tries to persuade Ardito that he think of himself not as a “free” man, but as “available.” But after many meetings, Ardito has a dream and realizes that Mr. Page is the tempter Satan. And Ardito writes: “I felt linked to Someone whose existence I had denied for many years….I knew, that night, that I could not believe in God, yet I loved him more than ever.”
This is not that interesting an encounter, mainly an exchange of ideas that crystallizes the uncertainty in Ardito’s thinking. It does not advance C.’s search for him. It seems, rather, to be Coccioli’s way of showing the reality of Satan and then Ardito turning a corner, the corner to worldly sainthood. In sum, I am not sure of the necessity of this episode.
Ardito’s final adventure occurs in Mexico, where he encounters a similar situation to his original confinement by the Germans in Italy; he is trying, in this case, to save a single hostage. In Mexico, he is now more mature, and he acts more bravely in a highly dramatic scene in which the author again portrays this hero as a saintly man. Finally, Coccioli rounds off his novel by returning his priest, and those seeking him, to the small town in Italy where his adventures, and this book, began.
Why did the author write this book? Why was he drawn to its theme of a priest searching for God? And of exploring men’s relationship with God? Coccioli was raised a Catholic, but became disillusioned with the Church’s direction (including its position on homosexuality), even though he still believed in the Church’s mission. So I believe he was inspired here to explore his contradictory feelings about the Church. Thus, his hero decides he does not believe in God, even as he acts as a good priest in his dealings with the troubled people he encounters. Coccioli is emphasizing the humanity of all mankind, and that our body cannot be sacrificed at the expense of our soul.
In Mexico, near the end of this novel, Ardito says, “There is a more sensational and more real miracle than a blind man regaining his sight. It is for a man who has lost his faith to regain hope.” That sums up Ardito’s journey in this novel. He wants to believe, is searching for his way back to God. And the title is explained on the last page when it cites a verse from St. John’s Revelations. “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”
One leaves this book sensing that Coccioli, like his hero Ardito, wants to believe, is trying hard to believe, and here allows his character to accept what he cannot. For he keeps writing here about truth, about the contrast and connection between good and evil, about the link between man’s body and his soul. What he has written here is a spiritual mystery, not unlike some of the work of Graham Greene, who also accepted what the Church stood for but could not accept its more specific conduct.
Coccioli himself writes that he has portrayed Ardito “as a man and as perhaps a saint, and as a bridge between heaven and earth.” Indeed, on his website he suggests that this is a true story, that he actually knew Ardito Piccadi in Italy, that the letters and journals are a result of his research, and that he decided to fictionalize the priest’s story based on those resources. I am not sure whether I accept this reality. (Might it just be the author trying to sell the reality of his fiction?) But I would concede that Coccioli may well have experienced a similar situation in which a priest he knew was held hostage (perhaps even killed?) and then let his imagination take wing.
In any event, this is an admirable work for its exploration of faith. It captures the tension between our world of realty and the ideal of faith. It is a tension each person experiences as he balances body and soul, truth and temptation, the saint and sinner within. And it explores this tension in the body and mind of one person, a priest, who belongs to both worlds. It even achieves a believable conclusion, although perhaps one more acceptable to a person of sincere faith.
I do wish I had come across that earlier novel about Ardito’s youth, education, and ordination, but it was not necessary to read that novel in order to appreciate this novel. This work, on the turning point in the priest’s life, is complete in itself.
I am also more interested now in reading additional Coccioli novels. The internal conflict within a man between his imperfect physical body in an imperfect physical world and the perfect ideal of his spiritual life—this is a valid source of literature for me, as Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, and others have long demonstrated. (July, 2014)