Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hike to the Hermitage and Back to Baptism

Day 7

For this day in Assisi I was quite excited. Of course we were going to do plenty of walking today but it wasn't going to be just along city streets going from one church to another. Our walk on this day was up to the hermitage on the hills above Assisi where St. Francis and his followers would often go on retreat.

After breakfast and mass we headed of the hill out of town. We stopped first at the Cathedral of San Rufino that we had tried to visit yesterday but found it closed because we came too late in the day. This time there was mass going on. Not wanting to be wandering around inside the church during mass we decided to catch it on our way back down the hill.

Our last stop before actually getting out of town was at a grocery store to grab supplies for lunch. Dave and I got our traditional meat, bread, cheese and beer. Rations acquired we headed up the hill. Once out of Assisi, which we knew we were because we passed through a large stone archway, we tread upon a small gravel path beside the two lane road that ran up the mountain.

I had stopped right past the archway to change into my Chacos which let everyone else get ahead of me. This left me to hike alone which I quite enjoyed. Not that there's anything wrong with being around people, but there's something special about being by yourself on a walk. If you're not talking you take more time to notice the trees that give you shade and wind on your face. Despite being by a road I felt I was able to get a feel for why St. Francis enjoyed walking up here from Assisi.

We stopped of course at a scenic vista and took group pictures (rather, Heather forced us to take pictures) with the Italian countryside in the background. I pretended to fall over the railing. This was not appreciated by Heather.
At the gate of the hermitage we got out our lunches and had a picnic by the side of the road. (I'm going to miss doing that.) Past the gate was a shaded cobblestone path walled on the left with the mossy rock face of the hillside and on the right by a shoulder height stone wall. The hermitage itself, built after the time of St. Francis over the place where he and his followers would retreat to, is a small stone structure consisting of 5-6 rooms built into the hill. It covers the small cave that Francis would stay in while they were up here.
We strolled along the trails that ran through the woods. We found a bronze statue of Francis reclining on the ground, something I imagine he did quite often, several small outdoor chapels and plenty of mud, sticks, trees and rocks. I was especially fond of this second part. It was a nice reminder that God isn't only found within the clean and orderly settings of a church.

Coming down the mountain from the hermitage I had a good talk with Dave. It wasn't about anything particular or particularly important, just a good time. Back in Assisi we stopped again by the Cathedral of San Rufino. This time it was open and there was no mass going on so we went inside. The Cathedral of San Rufino is a nice church, old of course (construction began in 1140) and modestly decorated, but it's important because it's where St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized.

On the way back to our guest house we visited the Church of St. Clare again; a) To spend more time in front of her relics but also to see the original cross of San Damiano, the one that spoke to Francis and began him on his life's work. (See Day 6)

From the hike most people were pretty tired so we didn't do too much in the evening. Some people took naps, others did some shopping or went to the store to get more food for dinner. I did some writing, looked through pictures and savored the last hours in Assisi before the train ride to Milan in the morning.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Small Chapels, 'New' Churches and Penitential Roses

Internet was hard to find in Assisi and expensive when I did find it. (heather actually gets credit for finding the place with the computers) In Milan we were pretty busy and no internet café presented itself so I wasn’t able to keep up daily posts. However on the plane ride home I finally have some time to type. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately depending on how much you like my writing style) it’s been 5 days since the following events happened so I’ve forgotten some of the details. Forgive me if I’m more dry and factual than previously as I’m working off notes taken in my journal. Also, I left my camera at the place we were staying in Assisi so pictures are dependent on what I can get from others.

Day 6

We began the day with mass in the Chapel at the convent guest house we were staying at. It was a small chapel with flaking frescoes and a plain brown floor. You might think this would be disappointing when not 24 hours earlier we had been in St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in Christendom, but fortunately that wasn’t the case. Rather than create disappointment it creates greater appreciation. Big churches are nice but in a small chapel you are able to have a much more intimate experience of the sacrament of the mass.

After mass we walked the couple blocks across town to the Chiesa Nuova, the New Church. Don’t let the title fool you however. This church isn’t new like the one they just built down the street from you. This one was built in the mid-1700s over the ruins of the house of St. Francis’s parents. It’s not what American’s would call new, but it’s the newest church in town.

Following a wide cobbled stone path down the hillside through acres of twisted yet stately looking olive trees is the church of San Damiano. This is the place where St. Francis had a vision of Christ telling him, “Rebuild my Church”. History Lesson: The young Francis first thought this meant to physically rebuild the church he was standing in so he ‘borrowed’ cloth from his father, an upper-class merchant and sold it to pay for building materials to restore the abandoned church. His father, being a businessman did not appreciate Francis’ efforts forced him to stop. Francis soon realized that Christ did not mean a physical reconstruction of a building but rather an ideological reconstruction of the ideals and social function of the church in his day. The life of St. Francis is his effort to follow Christ’s instruction to him.

Farther down in the floor of the valley outside Assisi (better accessed by city bus than walking) is the church of Santa Maria Degli Angeli. What is special about this church is that it has been built around a much smaller chapel that had been given to St. Francis and his followers by the local bishop when he first began forming his community.

In a garden outside this church is also the only place in the world where can be found a certain species of roses that grow without thorns. One day Francis was walking along when he (if I remember right) entertained a lustful or at least sinful thought for what he obviously thought was far too long. Seeking to do penance immediately for his sin he threw himself into some nearby brambles. His holiness was such that the brambles became thornless roses. I investigated the rose bushes closely. They are roses and there are no thorns!

Dinner consisted of meat, bread, cheese and beer bought at the local grocery store enjoyed out on the Piazza or on the steps of a the closest church. I like Italy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

One More Visit then to the Hills.

I finally found a place with internet in Assisi, but it’s a bit expensive and I have to finish this and some shopping before things close up here, so you’re just getting day 5 right now. Happy Ascension Sunday though!

Day 5

We had decided the day before that we hadn’t got in quite enough time at St. Peter’s on Tuesday (see Day 2) and since we knew the doors were open at 7:00am we asked Fr. Stuart really nicely if we could get up early and spend a little more time there before our train left for Assisi. Of course he didn’t have a problem with this plan so we ordered our breakfast from the hotel to-go and were off the subway and in St. Peter’s square by 7:30am.
One thing I wanted to do but hadn’t had the chance for earlier was to go tour the Tomb of the Popes and especially to see the tomb of Pope JPII. However, that part didn’t open until 9:00am so I had to occupy myself until then. (What could there possibly be to do inside the largest church in Christedom?) I spent time admiring the details of the building in light of the now in-pouring sunshine we didn’t have the luxury of the first time. The view from behind the main altar facing east toward the front of the church is amazing.

Also, the sounds of people singing Tantum Ergo or Alleluia’s echoing through the floor grates from masses being held in the chapels below the main floor added to the experience of this holy place.

While I was waiting for 9:00, I found the chapel where they had the Blessed Sacrament reserved and thought that a good place as to spend time. While I was there I noticed a Japanese couple come in, genuflect, kneel etc… all the things a Catholic that knows what they’re doing and the real purpose of this place would do. This was important because one of the things that has been really tough for me for most of this trip is seeing people that come into these churches with very little to no understanding of the place they are. The come in and irreverently snap pictures of anything that seems to be artistic/important and then stroll on elsewhere as if they were in a museum or out on the street.
For perspective, I know why the church is there and try my best to treat it as such. It is a house of God and a place of worship that happens to contain beautiful things so religious affection should come first. Therefore, it was good for me to see the Japanese couple, as members of a group that personifies the stereotype that bothers me so much, defying the stereotype. It made me feel better and reminded me to not be so quick to judge.
When the Tombs of the Popes opened at 9:00am I went in and straight for JPII. I knelt and prayed a rosary and tried to ignore the voice of the poor guard that had to constantly remind people ‘no photo. No photo. No photo’. The rosary, I thought, was appropriately prayed there because JPII had a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother, and I must say, it was one of the best rosaries in awhile. Fr. Stuart finally peeled us away at 10:30 and we headed toward our final church in Rome.
The Basilica of Santa Prassede, aside from the resting place of St. Prassede and her cousin is where the post that Christ was chained to when Pilate had him scourged is kept. There, in a small side chapel in a glass case is the stone upon Jesus was whipped before he was crucified. Honestly it doesn’t quite register yet, but in the future I bet it will, probably next Lent the first time I do Stations of the Cross.

Finally it was back to our hotel to pick up our luggage, a quick trip to the grocery store for lunch and then to the train station to catch the 1:30pm train to Assisi. Like I said before, Rome was good to us with lots of things to see, but I was ready to get out of the huge city. The train was the quietest place I’d been in 4 days and so I fell promptly asleep before we even left the platform.
I woke up some time later to smoothly gliding along past green, gently rolling hills. What a welcome sight/sensation! I marveled out the window and then went to reading the book I had been given by Mike Pratt and the NAC on Tuesday. We arrived too soon at Assisi (I really liked riding in that train.)
A bus from the train station took us to the base of the town halfway up the hill. Our traveler’s house seemed to be the rest of the way up the hill. The roads and stairs we had to drag our luggage up were only worth it because they were surrounded by a beautiful medieval-style town. (Assisi was founded as a Roman town in the 3 century B.C.)

So as to not overdo the first day, the only church we visited in Assisi was the Basilica of St. Frances of Assisi. He body is there as well as those of St. Martin of Tours and St. Anthony of Padua; also some Giotto paintings. My two favorite things were the tattered patchwork robe of St. Frances and his tomb, both shown in the sketches below. The robe is at left. All those shapes are the patches on it. Actually, it’s hard to say really if the patches were on it or if it was made entirely of patches. The shapes seen are not arbitrarily drawn by me but are the real shapes, sizes etc of the patches. His tomb is in a chamber under the main altar that had been sealed off quite intentionally after he died to prevent people from disturbing his tomb and its exact location had been forgotten. Those alive presumed it was under the main altar as is traditionally done. Excavations in the last hundred years have rediscovered his tomb and shown it to be where it was always thought.

Another long day done, we had some dinner at a local restaurant and retired eager for a night’s sleep absent of busses, trash trucks and drunk people outside the window. I think I like Assisi more than I even expected to like it!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Caravaggios Aplenty/Cafe' in the open air.

Day 4

We began day 4 in our usual tradition, breakfast then a trek to 'Termini', the central train/bus/subway station to take public transit to our destination. At this point we've used each form so much I can't even remember what we took this morning but fortunately it isn't really relevant.
We started at the Church of the Gesu' which is the mother church for Jesuit order. A unique thing about this church (aside from it being the home of the Jesuits) is that the paintings on the ceiling overflow their frame. It's something I've not seen anywhere else. Also, the Jesuits are one of the religious orders I am interested in aside from being a diocesan priest, so I took this opportunity to pray in front of the tomb of the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola himself, that if I'm meant to be a Jesuit he intercede so that may happen.
Next was the church of St. Mary of the Valley, named for it's placement relative to the Roman landscape. Here is the tomb of St. Philip Neri. I didn't know much about him before, but after a tour and some info from Fr. Stuart I think I quite like him. He had a good sense of humor, liked to lead youth on tours around the city but liked to spend time in quiet and prayer as well. I think I'll have to do more study on him. He seems like a good example. After a tour of where he used to live we said mass in the chapel that contains his relics.
Then began the art. At the church of San Luigi dei Frnachesi there are 3 original Caravaggio paintings, The Calling of Saint Matthew, The inspiration of Saint Matthew and the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew.
In the Church of St. Augustine are the relics of his mother, St. Monica. Her relics were moved from their original resting place in Ostia, Italy to this church in Rome by Pope Martin IV in 1430. St. Monica is the patron saint of my Church back in Edmond, OK so I said some prayers there in front of her tomb. I prayed as well for certain others for the intercession of Saint Monica in their concern, you know who you are.

While previous in history, the Pantheon came after the Church of Augustine in our tour of Rome. The pantheon is just as iconic looking in person as it does in those art books you had to memorize back in the say. When we stepped inside I was surprised to see Christian stuff everywhere. I had forgotten that it had been converted to a Christian church a long time ago. Now, I wasn't necessarily looking for it to be a greek temple still, but I didn't expect to see an altar and painting of Mary and the Saints. (The official name for the building is "Saint Mary of the Martyrs") The inside of the dome and the famous oculus look just as good as they always have.

For lunch we stopped at an open-air market in the heart of Rome, in the old part where the buildings are close together and the gelatto shops are around every corner. Dave and I got some pizza and walked a couple blocks and sat on a park bench to eat. We talked about life, watched the pigeons and mused at a juggler warming up under a shade tree. After wandering back near the market we stopped at a small cafe' and had some expresso and listened to the street musicians. Also, on the inspiration of a Johnny Depp look alike who was doing the same, I did some sketching of the surrounding buildings and the old man playing mandolin.

The afternoon held 2 more Caravaggios, a walk through a park, the famous Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain (both of which I honestly thought were dumb/tourist traps and so didn't even bother going over to look at them. Plus, since we're technically on a pilgrimage and not vacation I wasn't really in the mindset to see them anyways.)

We took the subway back to Termini, stopped by a grocery store in the way to our hotel for some dinner. I split a loaf of bread with Greg and bought some meat and cheese to make sandwiches. They were no delicacy, but the cost to taste ratio compared to going out to eat made it more than worth it.

Dave and I finished the day with an adventure outside enjoying the cool evening.

Tomorrow morning we're getting up super early to savor one last (mostly tourist free) look at St. Peter's Basilica before we head off to Assisi in the afternoon.

Honestly, I'll be glad to get out of Rome and into the Italian country-side. Rome is neat and entertaining, but like any super-massive, really old city it has enough drawbacks (tourists, noise, pollution, more tourists, smells wafting in your hotel window etc...) to make too much time here stressful. I've enjoyed my stay in one of the world's most important cities but I won't be too sad to leave it behind either.

To Assisi!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Outlet Obstacle - Summary

The last 2 nights I have had the luxury of having access to the outlet adapter to that let me use the American plug on my laptop cord in the Italian outlet. Tonight someone else is using it to charge their camera battery. Obviously I have access to a computer, but it's the sketchy one in the hotel coffee room that is hard to type on because of it's small size and extra keys (gotta have the à, ò, ç, è, é, °, §, ù, ì, £ keys you know. Plus I don't have my pictures on this computer due to its lack of a memory card slot. Tomorrow I'll either buy my own adapter or make sure and snag the one we've been sharing.

In the mean time, here's some brief thoughts on day 2 and 3 as recorded in my journal. I'll flush them out more when resources allow.

Day 2

Met my mom by the obelisk in St. Peter's square. How often does one get to do that?

Had mass in the tomb of the popes. "Tomb of the Popes" being the entire first level of the grottoes under St. Peter's collectively. Our mass was in the chapel of a specific pope. After mass I helped Fr. Stuart carry the mass suppplies back to the main sacristy. While he was putting stuff away I was looking at the ceiling/dome and got yelled at by a sacristan/swiss gaurd because he thought I was just some random guy that wandered in. (everyone else in there was Vatican staff or a priest, so me standing there in a t-shirt was a bit conspicuous)

The statues in St. Peters are huge yet so detailed! your mind can't even understand the scale.

Shopping and lunch in the Borgio Pio near the vatican. Sat on the curb with Dave and had a beer and pizza.

Got gelatto before going to the Vatican Museum at a place Fr. Stuart claims is the best in Rome.

The Vatican museum is more than just Catholic/Pope related stuff. It is a genuinely massive collection of art from all over the worl and all time periods. Truly amazing. There were so many people coursing through the museam though that it was dificult to appreciate. Maybe I'll be back some day when there's more time/less people.

We climbed to stairs to the top of the Dome of St. Peters!

Got a Scavi tour from one of the Oklahoma City Seminarians studying in OKC. We got to actually see the bones of St. Peter. The guy that walked on water, denied Jesus 3 times and was given the keys to the Kingdom, I've seen his bones; right there under the main altar.

Toured the North American College. Nice place. Got a Fulton Sheen book: The Priest is not his Own.

Went to dinner. on the menu, after the section for omlets was a line I can only assume was scrambled eggs. The english translation of the italian phrase was 'to mistreat eggs'...

Day 3

Took the metro far across town the the Basilica of St. Lawrence. Saw the tomb of St. Lawrence - The emperor demanded Lawrence hand over the riches of the church and Lawrence showed him the poor people the church was caring for, telling the emperor, "These are the riches of the Church" The emperor was not amused and burned him alive. Legend says that while he was on the fire he called out to his executioners, "I'm done on this side, flip me over." Also there is the tomb of St. Stephen, the protomartyr, the Stephen who was stoned while Saul held the cloaks.

Basilica of S. Croce in Gerusalemme - This church contain a large piece of the cross on which Christ was crucified, one of the nails of his crucifixion, the finger of St. Thomas the he put in the side and hands of Christ, 2 thorns from Christ's crown of thorns and the title that pilate put on the cross, the actual piece of wood that said, "Jesus the Nazarean, the King of the Jews" in greek, hebrew and latin.

We climbed on our knees, as has been tradition for hundreds of years, the steps of Pilate's preatorium that Jesus walked up and down during his passion. (they were moved from Jerusalem to Rome a long time ago)

Visited St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome.

Passed St. Clements, the original house church since approx. 300AD (sorry protestants, we've been doing that for a long time...)

Visited the Colliseum and Roman forum

Raced greg up the huge flight of steps to the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, was cheered on by a class of italian kids visiting that day.

Visited the Church of St. Peter in Chains - has the chains St. Peter was imprisoned with in Jerusalam and Rome. Got really annoyed at people being very disrespectful by walking idly in front of the chains and casually snapping a picture as if it were a clever street sign or something. I just wanted to call people out, but thought it probably wasn't the best thing to do.

Visited the bone church. "What you are now, we used to be, what we are now, you will be."

Monday, May 10, 2010

An Ambassador in Chains and the Prince of Apostles - Part 1

Day 1

We arrived in Rome on Monday the 10th of May and promptly began our pilgrimage. Integral to any pilgrimage is travel, especially the not easy kind. Our train from the airport let us off at the Termini (central terminal place)and we dragged our suitcases the approximately 10 blocks to our "Hotel Romae" Things safely stored, we headed off on foot to our first holy place, the Basilica of St. Mary Major ('Major' because it is the largest and oldest of the 26 churches in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary).

The church is of course very large and beautiful inside but also holds a very special relic, the 'crib' in which the baby Jesus was laid in the manger in Bethlehem. (I didn't see an explanation of how they're sure, but I trust the church to have good judgment in such things.) I got to spend some time there in a special area below and in front of the main altar built just for viewing of this relic. (It's the wood inside the silver, gold and glass thing) I was in good company too. In the same area is a statue of a Pope Sixtus V who would often come and pray in front of this relic. I didn't find with myself quite the affection he had, in fact much less than I expected, but such is life. You can't be emotionally/spiritually amazed by everything, but the next place we visited certainly broke the trend.
The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the walls (b/c it sits outside the old, roman city walls) is special because it holds the remains of St. Paul. Yes, the remains of the guy that persecuted Christians until he was knocked off his horse and was converted and went on to become the evangelist to the Gentiles. My affection for this saint and his relics surprised me at first, but the more I thought about it, especially as I sat against the cool stone wall 10 feet away from his tomb, I really like his style. Whenever I read his letters, I feel like if I had stuff that important to say, his way is the way I would do it.

Also, one of my favorite passages from the writings of Paul is where he explains that he is an ambassador in chains (Ephesians 6:20). I like the way it works on both the literal and metaphorical levels. What then is there displayed above the tomb of St. Paul? The chains with which he was bound in Rome of course, literally, a chain of 9 links that would have been strung between the shackles on his ankles. Wow. It's not that my faith is hinged on the existence of St. Paul's chains or even his tomb, but it's so amazing to see that Christian history is really real. Even if you don't believe in the Christian message you have to believe that its characters were real. (okay, I suppose you don't have too, but it sure makes it harder to doubt) I thought this was amazing and didn't want to leave, but I had no idea what I was soon going to experience.
Day 2

On Tuesday morning, Day 2, we awoke very early and were in St. Peter's Square by 7:30am. In case you've not seen it, it's big; so big in fact that your brain doesn't know what to make of it. Usually large structures are obviously so because the distance clouds their detail but the Renaissance artists that contributed to St. Peter's and the Vatican understood this and compensated. Everything is big. The statues 50 feet in the air look normal size because they're actually 20 feet tall and done in rich detail. It's big and impressive, moving on.

Once coming inside the Basilica any sense of scale that existed outside was gone...


(lame ending I know, but at 7:00pm where you are its 2:00am here and I need to go to bed so I can be awake to remember what happened on Day 3.)