Christin's Words from Sunshine Hill

If it is to be music
you must be present to it, must offer to it
a profound self-remembering.
-from Altar Music

Sunday, December 11, 2011

ADVENT MEDITATION ON DYLAN THOMAS'S POEM

I turn the corner of prayer and burn
In a blessing of the sudden
Sun. In the name of the damned
I would turn back and run
To the hidden land
But the loud sun
Christens down
The sky.
I
Am found.
O let him
Scald me and drown
Me in his world's wound.
His lightning answers my 
Cry. My voice burns in his hand.
Now I am lost in the blinding 
One. The sun roars at the prayer's end.

-Dylan Thomas
"Vision and Prayer" 1949
We grow older. The children leave home. Christmas begins almost imperceptibly to change into something new. Maybe in the beginning it is only the ornaments on the tree that change--the childhood ones have moved to the houses where the grandkids live--our children's houses. We hang a crystal angel, a silver-plated pine cone, One year we have no tree; instead we light candles on the mantle. We offer prayer as gifts. We sit in the silence and watch the bluejay that visits the feeder, the fox making his way across the forest's edge. We wonder what the Coming might be like now that its meaning sinks deeper and deeper into our souls, finally unencumbered by externals like bright ribbon and glitter. What kind of love might this have been that came to us from God? When we pray, "Come Emmanuel", for what exactly is it that we pray? We wonder that as we watch the sun setting early over the western hill. In the morning Orion strides across the still dark sky. "I wait for God as the watchman for the dawn." Breath, sighed onto the cold glass, makes a page on which to write one's deepest desire. 

O Christmas, Christmas! You fill my soul utterly. You are the burning of love in the heart of night's chill. You are the tenderness of God; you are the fire. You are the searing of soul, you are the cooling wind. The Divine Gift you bring melts all I used to recognize of myself. My voice burns in Your hand, as your loud sun Christens down the sky.

May Love dawn for you in times of darkness.

Christin




Wednesday, November 23, 2011

IN THE PRESENCE OF THE SUN AND THE SEA

The still empty canopy awaits the bride and groom. Bree and Patrick's family and friends mill, barefooted in the fine sand. I take a few pictures with my camera, and then just as the wedding party starts down the path to the beach, I am handed a small camcorder.

YIKES! I thought I'd have a chance to learn how to use this thing. The night before I had agreed to take a video of the procession and wedding. Bree's mom and dad would be in the procession. I was an obvious choice, even though I didn't know how to operate the camcorder. At that time I figured there would be time to find out. "I'll need about ten minutes," I'd warned, but they were already descending the steps. First bride's maid -- missed her.  Second -- missed her too. John and Bryana stood at the top of the stairs. I grabbed Rachel, the wedding planner. "You have to take it off standby!" She reached over and clicked something. I hoped I was getting a picture. Linda had said there was a zoom lens. Where was it? How did I get myself into this? At least there was a professional photographer there for the still pictures. I sat for a while with the camcorder trained on the wedding couple and their minister. My liturgical critic told me he was doing a great job. John suggested I run around behind the canopy to get Bree's face during the vows. Oh Lordy! It would be like running across the back of the stage during the theatrical climax of SOUTH PACIFIC. I did it anyhow. The great irony would be if, when I ask Bree how the video turned out, she would say, "What video? It was blank."

So today when John asked if I planned to write the blog about the wedding, I demurred a bit. I know he wanted a beautiful, descriptive little essay. And I had glimpses of that loveliness during my virtual Carol Burnett act. But I have no pictures of the ceremony in my camera, and also no memory of the ceremony except what appeared on that little screen. Oh, and did I say that I was sitting on the bride's side? This meant that the sun was in my eyes and also in the camera lens. The whole thing, from my perspective, a comedy of errors.

This I do know: Bryana could have been the cover for the next BRIDES magazine. She was that beautiful. She was radiant. Patrick's eyes were proud and loving and grateful all at the same time.


The guests had a great time --


And from the rehearsal dinner to the setting off of a fire-lit balloon into the night sky, Bryana's whole being seemed full of light.
Lighting the fire balloon
There was one bit of the wedding ceremony that I actually heard, saw, and that stays with me. It is a snapshot I wish I could give you, but there's too much to it. It couldn't have been captured on the camcorder even if I'd been able to make it work professionally. It was a moment composed of the wind, the sunshine, the look on the faces of the bride and groom. It was a moment of blessing by the minister they had chosen who seemed to know with his heart all the words to say to them and to the rest of us. He called us into the presence of being itself. The presence of the sun and the sea, of family and friends, of the Holy One who made all of this beauty along with the love that binds us one to the other. And with this presence he blessed Bryana and Patrick -- children of all that we are--that all of us were that afternoon on the sand, by the sea of Cabo San Lucas. At that moment they represented the best of humanity, the best of what we are capable. They represented the love that we can see when we look deeply into anyone's heart, including our own. That is why, afterwards, the women were weeping with joy and the men were looking so proud. Because we SAW ourselves again as if for the first time. We saw what we can be and can become. We wanted to touch them, to stand before them, look into their radiant eyes, hear the words they speak, remind them of their times with us. At the reception people DID that. "I've known Bryana since the beginning, since 4th grade!" proclaimed her friend from Bandon. 

So this is what a wedding is, and this is why we celebrate. This is why we attend. This is why friends and family flew all that way. Because this is what we are in the universe, isn't it? We are the creatures who agree to the union of hearts and souls, to the marriage of opposites--man and woman, fire and water, wind and sand, human and divine. And for a moment, there we are, in the center of that realization, in the perfect flame of that love which, as Dante sang, "moves the sun and the other stars."

Friday, November 18, 2011

POVERTY IN PARADISE

Roosters crow in the morning and the little dogs bark. Across the street from the Mexican Inn the chickens peck in the vacant lot where the VW is parked, or maybe stranded. It's a good thing that I didn't write about the poverty I saw on the first day I walked through it, on the first day that I saw our little Inn situated right in the middle of it. I would have gotten it wrong. Probably I still won't get it right, but I might be closer.

Today when we walked past the dogs who have free rein of the streets, the graffiti on the walls, the broken windows, the piles of trash, the abandoned stores and cafes, and worse, I didn't see them quite the same way as I did that first evening when the bus let us off by the park and told us we'd find the Inn because it couldn't be far. Dragging our luggage we walked along the broken sidewalks along streets with no names. Finally a young man who was working on his pickup told us to turn left and then turn right and then turn left two more times. OK.
Poor man's patio
Since that evening we have walked these streets scores of times, back and forth from the Marina, only about five or six blocks away.  The area around the Marina is rich with luxury hotels and shops. "It is a different world from any other," explains a suave English speaking Mexican in a gallery. "It doesn't really belong to Cabo, and it doesn't belong to any other culture. It is simply a place to fish and play golf and buy beautiful things." But immediately on the edge of the marina are blocks of little store-fronts with people who swarm around the tourists with fake silver necklaces for sale -- "one dollar; almost nothing!" I've become careful not to stop to look at anything, because the moment I do: "what size you want? what color? come back here...I have size. Twenty-five dollar, but for you, twenty. You maybe take it at twelve. I give it to you for eight." Today I got caught buying a sixty-five dollar blanket/shawl/table cloth for forty dollars and I didn't even want it! I just wanted to get away.

Little children learn to be vendors: At dinner last night two beautiful children stopped at our table.
And I became owner of three hand painted whistles.

In the neighborhood, though, no one tries to sell us anything. They live here. This is the home world. It isn't the tourist world. Here the cafes are owned by the neighbors and serve the neighbors. Estella directed us to the cafe operated by her friend from church. The menu was expansive, but few offerings were actually on hand. After not very long at all, my focus turned to the people rather than the things around them. Slowly as the hours passed my notions of beautiful and desirable went through a transformation. Even my notions about danger changed. I started seeing that chair under the tree that we pass twice or more times a day as a place where someone actually sits to relax in the shade, rather than a misplaced piece of furniture. It's a little thing, to be sure, but a significant cultural shift.

You stop seeing the strangeness of clothes lines right downtown, and begin to be aware of the care with which the clothes are hung.
Do you ever get the feeling that life is all topsy turvy? I see how difficult it can be to live down here. I see also how people help one another through their relationships. Estella is careful to take us where her friends work.It is an economy based on friendship. I suspect that few people in the neighborhood have missed out on the information that John and I are staying at the Mexican Inn--or that Estella and Miguel know who we are. And thus their home becomes our home. And you can feel it.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

LIZARD BEHIND THE MIRROR

We interrupt this blog about Italy to bring you words from Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. This little fellow to the left is merely a metal representation of his living counterpart behind the bathroom mirror who is too shy to allow photographs. John has made friends with the bathroom lizard who, he tells me, eats spiders. I did have a chance to see him yesterday waiting for dinner on the wall above the shower.

We are here on the tip of the Baja Peninsula where the Sea of Cortez meets the Pacific Ocean. John's daughter (and mine as well, now, along with Linda who is her birth-mother) is getting married on Sunday on the beach. So we are here ahead of time, enjoying the warmth and the sunshine.  Rather than staying at one of the many beach-front resorts, we chose to stay in a small hacienda for the "authentic Mexican flavor"...and so it is. We come to know Miguel, the manager, even though he speaks no English, and I speak no Spanish. Nada. But John studied a bit, and can even tell jokes and play on words with puns. Last evening we had dinner with him and Estella who does just about everything around here.She spent the morning guiding us around the new and old parts of town. Then in the evening she took us with her to a charismatic prayer meeting at her Catholic church. The people we met there and the experience we had went way beyond anything one can expect from a vacation. An older woman with a classic Mayan face was so beautiful that John commented to me: If God turns out to be a woman, that's the face she would choose for Herself. I wish I had a picture of her, but it would have been too much an invasion of her privacy even to ask.
outside our room

fountain where birds bathe inside the Inn 

John and Estella at the Marina
Beach front resorts
Cabo's famous rocks...not a good shot, sorry.
It's time for a siesta.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

HERMITAGE AND SOLITUDE

On a blustery Friday we took taxis high up on Mt. Subasio to the hermitage of the Carceri. Here St. Francis and his close friends spent months at a time in solitude, praying and communing both with God and our "brothers and sisters" found in nature. He wrote the beautiful prayer of gratitude for creation.

 
Praised be my Lord God with all creatures,
and especially our brother the sun,
which brings us the day and the light;
fair is he, and shining with a very great splendor:
O Lord, he signifies you to us!


 
Praised be my Lord for our sister the moon,
and for the stars,
which God has set clear and lovely in heaven.

Praised be my Lord for our brother the wind,

and for air and cloud, calms and all weather,
by which you uphold in life all creatures.

Praised be my Lord for our sister water,

which is very serviceable to us,
and humble, and precious, and clean.

Praised be my Lord for brother fire,

through which you give us light in the darkness;
and he is bright, and pleasant, and very mighty,
and strong.

Praised be my Lord for our mother the Earth,

which sustains us and keeps us,
and yields diverse fruits,
and flowers of many colors, and grass.


Along the pathways here are several caves in which the friars sought solitude with God. Bronze statues of Francis and two other friars capture their absorption in the earth and sky as though through nature to find a path to the Transcendent.
During the years that I lived alone on Sunshine Hill friends warned me against "becoming a hermit," as though there might be something dangerous about such a life style. And I recognize that there are dangers of being too much alone--self-absorption being one of the chief among those dangers. The person who becomes a hermit to "just get away from it all," is in danger. But in a world such as our modern one, with its fast pace and constant noise, a positive balance becomes a necessity. Some, like Thomas Merton, still are called to give this balance to the rest of us. There are others, much less visible in their solitude than he was because of the writing he was also called to do, who lead positive lives in solitude. What makes this hermetic life positive, I think, is the inner direction it takes of being focused on something so much larger than the self. Knowing oneself as part of the whole world, its destructive aspects as well as its creative, the hermit can lift up the self in surrender for that world, can enhance the consciousness of that world.

In an individualistic era like ours, it can be difficult to see how some guy living in a cave and talking only to God can affect me in even a small way. But what if every thought we have actually does vibrate throughout the entire fabric of being, and we aren't such individuals as we thought? Then in solitude we would not be so alone. Instead we would have the contemplative experience of realizing our connection with everything. Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Fire, Sister Water, Brother Wind, Mother Earth. Brother You, Sister I. And the same Breath in and through us all.

Brother Francis gazing at the sky.



Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Poor Clare Sisters

From Rivortorto we drove eastward through the Apennine Mountains into the Marches of Ancona to stop at the little town of Camerino and the Poor Clare Monastery where St. Camilla Baptista da Varano lived during the 15th century. She was canonized only in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.

I'd never heard of her before, and don't quite know what to make of her now. It's significant that the nuns worked all these centuries to have her recognized. She'd been a Renaissance illegitimate daughter of royalty. Her royal father had a great fondness for her, however, and when she decided to leave the courtly life to enter a monastery, he had this particular one in Camerino built for her. Later he and his family had become ensnared in political doings with the Pope--a Borgia--and ended up victims of a violent murder. When the pope attempted to annex Camerino, she was forced to flee into the Kingdom of Naples until a new pope was elected. Her writings contain nothing of these events, and she was known for her loyalty to the papal office and a heart able to forgive even the most heinous of crimes. The focus of her spirituality was on the sufferings of Christ, the cross, and the Divine Heart burning with love for the poor. I'm hoping that all of her writings will soon be translated (I found only one in English on the Internet). Apparently she had intense mental struggles, and I'd like to know more about that.
One of the four sisters still living at the Camerino monastery talked with us about St. Camilla, then served us a lunch of pizza and Italian cola. (It's neither Coke nor Pepsi nor like them in any way I could discern. It leaves a medicinal taste along the side of the tongue)

From Camerino we continued on to San Severino to visit the Poor Clare's there. This community has a Francis-story connected with it. He saved a lamb from among the goats and carried it to the sisters living there. They cared for the animal and made a cloak for him from the wool. Later the group of women became Poor Clare's. It isn't often that people on pilgrimage are able to relate so closely to the women in these monasteries, but our organizer, Bret, has known them for years and seems to relate to them as family.

We were led into a visiting room. Four nuns sat behind a grill and one of them spoke for about an hour about life in their community, and also about her own experience of vocation to this life-style. She was animated, articulate in English, and very young.

Afterwards we joined them for Vespers chanted in the chapel. They were in the choir section of the chapel, and we prayed in the public area, but we could see one another. These twenty-five women had been singing together for a long time, and their voices blended so beautifully that I started to cry AGAIN! It's true. I do continue to carry nostalgia for the beautiful parts of my early years in the convent. Probably it is nostalgia for the dream of convent life that I had when I entered, and of which I experienced some fulfillment. John leaned over to me and whispered, "Do I have to leave you here?" And I shook my head, no, even though my heart felt on fire with the same youthful longing I experienced when I was seventeen. "We have our own monastery on Sunshine Hill," I whispered back. (of course, the two of us can't sing like that!)

We waited in the courtyard until dinner time when the sisters served us a feast. Turkey, tomatoes from their garden, soup, pasta, salad, fruit, home-made wine, home-made brandy, tiramisu.

One rather scary thing happened there: Before going down the hill to catch the bus back to St. Mary of the Angels, several of us lined up at the restroom off the convent parlor. The men went in and out--no problem. The first woman who went in came dashing out, waving her arms, "There's a SCORPION in there." I was next in line. "Where?" I questioned. "Above the door." She shivered. Aha! The men had their backs to it. I thought of a little scorpion I'd seen in Florida--a skinny pink thing--and went in. Yes. There it was. Above the door. Black and fat. How fast do they run? Can they drop from a thread like spiders? It's little right claw moved slightly to the right. I simply had to use this facility!! It's black tail curled up around its fat body. Oh dear. Finished, I opened the door slowly, then edged out. Safe.

Afterwards I thought how a building hundreds of years old must be hard to keep up. I wondered if there are lots of those around San Severino. I suppose there are; it's high desert. I wondered if people ever get used to them? Probably they do. I have cousins in Arizona, for goodness sake! 

Oregon's really a great place to live :)









Thursday, November 3, 2011

FRANCIS AND THE LEPERS

Once upon a time Francis of Assisi despised lepers. And who didn't? Probably the emotion was more one of fear, even terror. I don't need to explain this. But something happened to him. A dream. A vision. Who knows anymore? Something powerful happened, and for him, as a result, Christ was there. Christ showed himself present in (as?) the leper, and Francis kissed him.

In the deep valley below Assisi, below St. Mary of the Angels, below most everything stands a little stone chapel. It is at a place called Rivotorto, and is the site where Francis and his friars served the lepers. Look up the hill. It's a straight path down to this place. All the refuse would flow down here. Malaria would be rampant here. Disease of all kinds would have flourished here. Francis and his friars built huts and lived in them while they served.



The chapel now is in a little neighborhood and is cared for by a woman who lives next door. She holds the key, and was not home when we arrived. Possibly we would be unable to go inside, but just as we were about to leave she drove up. Some divine intention wanted us inside.
"Who or what is the leper in your life?" All of us pilgrims were asked to consider this question. What is it that I fear to embrace? What is it I despise? The people in the time of Francis thought leprosy was a punishment for some profound and hidden sin. What do I think is so evil I don't want to be in its presence in case it is contagious?

These days we are asked to embrace our shadow, the darkness within, that aspect of our personalities we've worked a lifetime to keep in check. We're told it holds the power of our creativity. The fear is that the shadow self will release chaos into our lives. It's the leper. That's what we think. Could it be it contains the face of Christ? Or is that too simple? What is it then? The suffering Christ? The one who took on everything we fear and hate? The one who surrendered to be broken open like an egg. Is that what the shadow is? The leper? What in me needs breaking, needs to be poured out, to be freed, released?

I wonder that now as I wondered it that day in Rivortorto. What have I consigned to the valley of darkness? What do I need to find down there, in the soul's depth? What in me do I need to kiss?

those little lights are a reflection on this scene of Francis and the leper

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Santa Chiara

Icon of Francis and Clare from WordPress

I may need to return. It troubled me that I'd forgotten Clare's crypt and her waxened body. Then I began to remember snippets: ---that St. Camilla's body looked plastic, while St. Clare seemed to have but the lightest coat of wax so that I thought, in walking past the crypt, that I hadn't remembered her body was preserved incorruptible. I think I knelt there. Maybe I didn't. Maybe people were in line behind me; I suppose they were. ---that when we left the crypt I said to John, "Maybe we ought to change the name of our home from Sunshine Hill to The Chiara House." Her name rings bells inside my heart (Kee AH rah). ---that I stood for a long time in front of an alb she had made for Francis. It was twice as long as a man is tall, and the now fragile material had been needleworked with an intricate design that must have taken her years to complete. And I wondered what she might have been thinking, praying, dreaming, imagining, surrendering as she worked on that sacred garment. What flesh actually remains of her now, fragile as this alb? Bone fragments? Ash? Wisps enclosed in wax.

The icon above from WordPress touches me to the quick. They had one vision, the two of them. One faith. One hope. Probably one Love. It's not like being in-love with one another. It is more like being inside Love itself, together. Divine Love itself. Or, maybe like "between us, One I." 

Why didn't I remember that I saw her waxened body? Maybe because she transcended that body a long time ago, even while she still lived on this earth. What IS this earthly body of ours? Why have religions thought it significant when the flesh does not dissolve? It's barely there anyway. Sometimes this flesh seems to dissolve while living itself into the living flesh of others. Can I always tell where you stop and I begin? Doesn't physics tell us we are mostly space? So when we live in that space and not so much in our solidity, what then? Chiara! Chiara! We are you, now, walking past whatever remains of your fragile flesh hidden in that wax. We must carry now your light. Was that where I was that day? Somewhere out in the fields with her spirit? Somehow dancing in the radiance of her shining? My fleshly eyes peered through the heavy grill that protected her waxened remains, and quickly forgot. But something else in me saw Light, Chiara, and remembered.

Again, not allowed to take pictures, I found this one on the Internet

Back at St. Mary of the Angels Basillica, John and I browsed in the bookstore where they sell Franciscan books in almost any language. There's a small English section. One book caught my eye: Francis and Clare in Poetry. I waited though until I returned home to buy it, and when I did I opened to a poem by John F. Deane whose experience, somewhat different from mine, touched my heart and brought Clare very much into the present moment. 

THE POOR LADIES OF SAN DAMIANO

Step down, out of the sun, into this crypt:
still life, with candlelight, and bride;

she has waited seven hundred years
for the bridegroom to claim her body;

she lies, in a glass casket, beyond glass walls;
watch, and your own face is watching back. Name her--
clara, bright, translucent--Clare;
and something less, not-life, not-death: dusk.

The face has a talcum pallor,
the fingers have the sheen of candlewax.

Precious, preserved, a dried flower.
*

Purple toadflax clings
to chinks in a high brick wall
in a market town in Ireland;
on glass-spiked wall-tops
lilac and laburnum droop,
their purple grapes,
their tresses of golden hair.
Poor ladies. Behind their walls
they struggle to emulate
the image of the Bridegroom, crucified;

outside, dealers thump with sticks
on the flanks of cattle;
trucks go by, their stench of dung,
the gasps of jostled animals.

*

Clare, like Penelope, sat by her mirror
embroidering an alb for Francis;
when their eyes met he was watching
far beyond, and only distorted shadows

passed on the mirror's surfaces.
Outside, olive trees drooped with a weight of fruit;

the density of flesh, if she could only
shuck it off, allow the blossoming

of love, of ecstasy, untrammelled, pure;
Clare, in quiet, offered up her life to God

bringing a coarse, dark fabric as a dowry.

*

In Ireland, poor ladies behind their grille
have given up their lives for peace;
as wedding blessings they send out prayers,
and rosaries of olive-coloured beads.

Today, above Assisi, mirage fighter jets
burst from the sun to shatter
the convex mirror of the sky.

We come, tourists, wedding guests,
step down out of the sun into the crypt;
whispering, and jostling, we are ushered past;

we know she died, Juniper and Angelo are witnesses;
she stepped through the mirror
into God's image, leaving her flesh
for the curious eyes of centuries.

Artist: Susan Clark




Monday, October 31, 2011

TOMB OF ST. FRANCIS


The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is a magnificent structure fronted by an enormous square (on which we first saw the Beggar of Assisi). Inside are frescoes of the life of Francis painted by artists of the high Middle Ages such as Giotto. Here also is an ancient portrait of Francis, the only remaining fresco by Cimabue, supposedly the closest likeness of him that we have.

The pilgrims and art enthusiasts moved around the cathedral with heads tipped back, straining necks. Our small group was blessed to have Alex's vast knowledge and appreciation at our disposal. An amazing detail is that the construction of the lower church had advanced far enough in two years that Francis' body could be moved here from its temporary resting place. Again, taking pictures inside the church was forbidden, but if you are curious, you can find images on the Internet.

Beneath the main church is the chapel of St. Francis' Tomb. Somehow Bret, our pilgrimage leader and organizer, was able to arrange for us to celebrate Mass there. "In all my life," commented one of the pilgrims, "I never imagined I'd have a chance to receive communion right here, at the very tomb of St. Francis!"

It's an intimate space, almost as if carved out of the stone of the mountain. Here's a photo from the BBC, taken just after the first restoration in 800 years was completed this April.

Here words fail. What IS it about St. Francis? From where comes this falling away of all but God?  It feels as though we are taken into his spirit, somehow, becoming more than we are. This sense has been felt through the ages. You can see it in the frescoes: a consistent comparison, almost an identification of Francis' life with the life of Jesus. But it becomes personal--an "I am That" of the eastern traditions. Father Jose stood at the altar, his back to us as it would have been in the pre-Vatican II church. That felt right, somehow, even though I've spent much of my life studying and promoting renewal in the liturgy. The priest, in this instance, felt to me like the point on a wedge of wind, of spirit, bursting out of the community of pilgrims with Francis, as Christ, into the Divine Mystery of God. Once again I wept. What a strange phenomenon, these tears that just fall and fall without the accompanying sense of crying.

After Mass we walked with other pilgrims around the tomb. The tombs of his closest companions also are here, circling Francis. The tomb is not of glass, unlike that of St. Clare, showing a facsimile of the living person. Francis' remains are enclosed in stone. One pilgrim lightened my mood by quipping: "you know why Francis was buried in stone rather than glass?" No. "They didn't want people to see him turning in his grave." Oh. OK. The little poor man of Assisi, stuck til the end of time in one of the greatest basilicas in Christendom. 

Life is irony. It's a symbol, of course. This beauty all around his memory comes about as we try to articulate heaven, just as the book of Revelations with its golden and jeweled streets is also trying to articulate heaven. But we can't. We really have no words for that. We get a taste of it from time to time. Francis felt it in a cold cave in the mountains, in the kiss of a leper. What kind of irony is that?

Later we walked along the streets of Assisi, up to the main town square and the temple of Minerva, then spread out to enjoy the Saturday market and to find lunch. 

The temple of Minerva



Looking down a side street
The dome of St. Clare's
Little shrines are built into the walls






Saturday, October 29, 2011

RETURN TO GOD

This man wanders the streets of Assisi, smiling, crying out the Word of God, and carrying a knapsack for alms, though he blesses both those who give and those who do not. We saw him during both our visits to the town. Was he a charlatan, a fanatic, or a true and radical follower of Francis? "Ritorno a Dio!" he kept repeating. "Return to God." Wasn't that what Francis used to cry out?

I noticed that most people pretended he wasn't there and went on with their tourist activities. Of course one can't give to every beggar. (There were many, both in Assisi and in Rome--some of them with bodies twisted beyond comprehension.) This one, though: Who made that sackcloth robe for him? Shouldn't he have a bowl instead of a bag? But then, Francis asked for money, didn't he? To rebuild the church. If we gave freely to anyone begging on the streets, would everyone leave their jobs and homes and take to the streets? I don't think so. I think it's hard work to beg, especially if you have to do it every single day. It must become like a form of work, not all that unlike being a census taker, a bill collector, a lobbyist on the Capital steps in Washington. And if your work clothes itch -- well. . .

What if he was the best thing in Assisi? Wouldn't we have struck up a conversation with him? 

How does one tell a crazy person from a saint? I watched the Assisi Beggar climb the steps behind the Cathedral of St. Francis. "Return to God; Return to God!" He wasn't "normal." What saint has ever been normal? They are trans-normal. Francis went down the mountain to care for the lepers while everyone else was striving to go UP. "He's crazy," said the townspeople of him. He slept on rocks in caves. Afflicted with sores and blindness, he called his situation one of Eternal Joy. His heart burned with Divine Fire.

The other day I was reading a book that had nothing to do with Christianity. The author mentioned St. Francis of Assisi, calling him a turning point in the development of western culture, the first of the truly individuated persons. Up to then the collective had been primary. Francis bridged the times for us. In the stories we have images of him walking on the edge of the precipice in Laverna (like the archetypal Fool who sings and dances blindly on the edge of a cliff--the image of beginnings, of transformation)--images of him crossing the mountain gorge on the trunk of a tree blown down for his passage. He is the transitional man. (In his day many transitional men and women were executed for heresy.) Francis dodged that by his simplicity, candor, humility, willingness to be transformed.

Or -- so it seems to a novice of his Way which is (he would insist) the Way of the Christ.

This morning I'm just thinking this out, not even writing it in Word beforehand and pasting it into the blog. Just letting my fingers do the talking. First I pasted that picture in, and off went the fingers on the keys. If I sound crazy, maybe I am...

unlike Francis who looked crazy to so many, but was not. Yesterday I was reading an analysis of Beatrice of Nazareth, another mystic of the time of Francis, but spending her life in a Cistercian Monastery in Belgium. Scores of men and women across Europe in that era reported mystical experiences. Visions, sensory manifestations, the audible voice of Christ, etc. So the author asks the question I asked: how do you know they are sane? His rule of thumb is "how do these people act when they are not in the throes of a mystical experience, not at prayer, not in contemplation?" All of these people were not only functional, they were brilliant in their abilities to accomplish their work, to relate to others with compassion and good judgment, to take their place in the pattern of their social network, do be patient in their own trials, and the various other characteristics of a healthy, mature personality.

And what's not sane about the cry of the Assisi Beggar?  "Return to God." I, for one, when I look at the world these days, think that's pretty good advice.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

WOLF IN WINTER



On October 4th, before reaching Laverna, we took a side trip to Gubbio. John and I were both eager to see this little town because of his book, WOLF IN WINTER, published in the mid-eighties by Paulist Press.  We watched for the scene he'd described in the book's opening:

"Gubbio grips the slope of Mount Ingino with all the tenacity and seriousness of a medieval fortress, stern as the cliffs rising behind it. It was the same in March of 1207. The city towers and the battlements on its outer walls had purpose then, protecting it from the raiders who poured out of Perugia, ruinous as the snow-swollen rivers raging down the sides of Ingino.
Atop the mountain, the monastery of San Ubaldo guarded the city and the Apennine passes. Even the cypresses ranged in columns on the hills had the appearance of sentinels. With the stiff movement of chilled watchdogs, their shadows stretched through the lavender dawn, patrolling patches of mud and dirty snow, leaping the low stone walls and grape stalks of the smallholdings outside the city."
(--John R. Sack, WOLF IN WINTER)
  

This story of St. Francis as a youth is the one that started it all for John, and so was greatly responsible for this pilgrimage in our lives. It is presently being reprinted by Tau Press and should be available in early November of this year. He’s since written two historical novels (The Franciscan Conspiracy, and Angel’s Passage) both of which are available for purchase. (Is this beginning to sound like an advertisement??? Hey, I love the guy AND his talent for writing. These are great books! And he is working himself up to yet another – resulting in a true trilogy of the longer, more sophisticated works. WOLF IN WINTER is more a young adult novel—but well worth the time of an old adult--such as I.)

               On our own way to Gubbio the traditional story of the wolf was retold by Alex, our guide to the spirituality of each place. As the tale goes, a wolf was foraging in the town of Gubbio. The townspeople worried for their supplies, their animals, their children and their own lives. St. Francis, passing through, offered to talk with the wolf to see if some arrangement might be made. And sure enough -- recognizing Francis's compassion and simplicity and truthfulness, the wolf and the man reached an agreement. The wolf would respect the town and harm nothing, and the people would feed the wolf.
               As he told the story, he kept referring to John, and pretty soon several pilgrims wanted to buy John's book which tells a rather more complex story, some of it from the point of view of Francis, and other sections from that of the wolf. Naturally, I'm not about to tell you John's plot or attempt to rebuild his fine characters here. Tau Press is about to send a whole box of newly printed books to Sunshine Hill. And they will be available both in trade paperback and for electronic books really soon. I hope you watch for them.

As we walked through the village on our way to the famous statue of Francis and the Wolf, we encountered another town market in the square.

I believe that every pilgrim in our group had a picture taken with Francis and the Wolf.



There's a famous saying: "God made humans because he loves stories." Stories of wolves survive in the mythologies of most European nations, and some very primitive ones feature the "Corn Wolf" which was literally the last sheaf of grain harvested, and was not to be eaten all winter, even if it meant that the people would go hungry. This wheat "belonged to the Wolf." In fact, this was the grain that would be planted in Spring, assuring the the survival of the people.

The Francis and the Wolf story seems, though, to add an important dimension to that more primitive one. Compassion. The open heart of Understanding takes the place of the closed heart of fear. Giving takes the place of hoarding as a way to survive. 




Tuesday, October 25, 2011

RETREAT AT LAVERNA IN TUSCANY

Before we left on pilgrimage, I told my friends I'd be at the tomb of St. Francis for his feast on October 4th, and I quipped that there would be a million others with me. Though I feel a bit claustrophobic in crowds, I thought such a crowd as this, all focused on the same awareness, could give off a spiritual energy in which I could participate. But it didn't happen that way, and I couldn't be more grateful. Instead, we all piled into the bus for Laverna in Tuscany to make a retreat in the mountain grotto where Francis was marked with the wounds of Christ--the phenomenon we call the stigmata.

We drove on steep mountain roads, around switchbacks, and gazed out at a landscape like that of a medieval painting. Sometimes villas graced the hilltops. 

Up here, on Mt. Laverna Francis had a hermitage on land given him by Orlando, a wealthy nobleman. We'd been told to bring warm clothes to ward off a freezing wind that usually blows in October. But as we walked up the last bit of mountain towards the sanctuary the sun shone warm and bright.


Back in 1224, Francis had just finished a forty-day retreat, praying and resting in a stone cave. He'd asked Christ to be able to share in his passion, and was pierced in his hands, feet and side by a seraphic fire. Reading of this from the classic THE LITTLE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI was something I hadn't done before the retreat, but have done now, and honestly, it took my breath away. The place is still "hot" from that fire. Was it the altitude that made it hard to catch my breath?

We descended into the cave of Francis, the place he made his petition.




This is the actual hermitage. The grate protects the stone bed on which Francis slept.

A painting of Francis contemplating/praying in the cave


Light catching the edges of a gouge in the rock

 


 John leaning against the rock at the precipice

We stood on a precipice where it is written that he was tempted, as Jesus was also tempted on a mountain, and then was saved from falling when he called upon God.

I can't do this. I don't know enough to do this. I know what I felt in that place. I felt fire in my heart. What is that? I absolutely do not know. What are spiritual experiences themselves? I don't know that either. They aren't emotional. They aren't cognitive. They can't be personally caused regardless of the perfection of techniques such as special breathing or postures. One author I read posits that such experiences are psychosomatic reactions to the touch of God -- the Divine Touch itself cannot be felt, but the body cannot help but respond, even in quite dramatic ways.

What did Francis feel that resulted in those bodily wounds? Was it the same thing that St. Paul felt which caused him to say, "I bear the marks of Christ in my body"? Other than Paul did any stigmatic exist before Francis? I don't remember being told of any. But during just my lifetime there have been--how many?--I think hundreds. Does the body respond to that suggestion once the mind is aware of it?

Does it matter?

"Deus meus et omnia" Francis cried as the Divine Fire pierced him. The words are in gold above the chapel of the stigmata. "My God and My All". I stood in the long hallway afterwards, after the procession had wound towards that chapel singing the litany of Mary. Why Mary? Because she said "yes." She said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to Your will." Francis also said "Yes." The obvious question: will I? Every moment, will I?

The invocations of Mary's Litany rang out in Latin: Rosa Mystica --Mystical Rose, Vas Spiritualis--Spiritual Vessel, Vas Honorabili--Vessel of Honor, Domus Aurea--House of Gold…

A voice in my mind murmured, "Weren't you once going to write a meditation book on these invocations?'
"I was."
The voice again: "It's time."

Yes. Yes, it is.