The ancient Roman practice of divination survives like an ar­cheological relic in our languages: the auspex, who observed the flight of birds (avis, spectare) and read the future there, survives in the words 'auspices' and 'auspicious'; the augur is still ‘inaugurating’ things in English and wishing everyone the best (auguri!) in Italian. The cleverest people in pagan Rome had recourse to divination without scepticism or embarrassment; it was consid­ered so important that the authorities prosecuted false diviners. But it survives not only as a half-forgotten etymology; it is a lucra­tive trade in piazza Navona every night of the week.

On both sides of a little side-street, Corsia Agonale, they set up their tables in the evening. I have not seen any who examine the entrails of animals, but all the others are there in force: palmists, seers, exorcists - citizens of every nation under the sun - charmers, mediums, clairvoyants, gazers at crystal balls and tarot cards, astrologers, soothsayers and a convincing stand-in for the witch of Endor.

The best of them is a multi-lingual reader of hearts, no more than fifty years of age but doing his best to look eighty. With dentures removed and with a shawl over his head, surmounted by a hat, he could be from any time or place; he is in fact from Germany.

Visitors from every part of the globe can hear him speaking in their own tongues.
'You have two brothers and a sister,' he declares to a young tourist, surrounded by her friends.
'No,' she replies a little apologetically, 'I'm an only child.' 

'Or an only child, yes.  And you come from Belgium.'

'No, Canada.'
'Mais oui, c'est clair, vous êtes canadienne!' he says, with a piercing look, as if surprised that it took her so long to know such a simple thing.

He is nearly always dead wrong, but it never shakes his composure - nor that of his clients, because his appearance is his warranty. Then he moves to the inner being, where his high flown delivery is not checked by contradiction. He always speaks with total certainty and is heard in the same spirit, since that is what his clients are seeking: certainty. He is at his best when he speaks of the future: it is here that he can give them real value for their money; his munificence knows no bounds. He has secret knowledge, he is a knower, a gnostic; he sees visions for the young and dreams dreams for the old; he prophesies for them and speaks about wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath.

His gift is that he knows our need for certainty; he knows we will eat it off the street, and so, of his charity he distributes it with a generous hand.

From In a Fitful Light: Conversations on Christian Living, Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications, Dublin 1994)

These are brief articles, one per month,
on a wide variety of topics concerning the living of the Christian life.