From the Diary of Fr Henry – Journey in Italy
WEDNESDAY, JULY 2
Acts 28: 16, 30-31: When he entered Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. He remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with
complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
I set an itinerary for myself, and more than met it.. .a ‘roamin’. Yes, I did more roamin’ today than most Romans did, and I think I saw more of the city than many of them have. To start at the beginning:
Still on California time, after turning in with the chickens early last evening, I was up before the chanticleers this morning. After a simple buffet breakfast in the hotel dining room, I hit the streets while the air was still refreshingly clean and cool, getting the lay of the land, and seeking out the railroad terminal from which Madhu and I would be departing a few days hence. Though not within sight of the hotel, it is just a mere two blocks away. We will be easily able to walk that distance, luggage in tow. However, with the walking I did today, it would seem that I could have hiked half the distance to Assisi.
Two objectives were selected to occupy the day. I was recommended by the guide book to go to Monte Gianicolo. “It’s not one of Rome’s original seven hills, but the best view of Rome is from the (English name) Janiculum Hill. There are spectacular views all the way up from the Passeggiata del Gianicolo, an avenue that runs around the hill.” So extols the Fodor’s guide. And it was entirely correct in that, if a bit understated in describing the grand views. However, the site sat about as far in the opposite direction of town from here as it could be. That required public transportation. That required knowing which bus to take. That required knowing where to find desired bus. The front desk of the Milani was of little help. The gent told me to take the #75. “Where do I pick it up?” I asked. He motioned down the street at the nearby Piazza Independencia, near where I had dinner last night. It seemed the logical place. At first I took off in the wrong direction, though in Rome, as I would find out, it’s difficult to know which the right direction is. In addition, there are no clearly marked stops, no bus numbers, and no schedule. Say what you will about SF Muni, it has it all over the transit system here. I asked some locals both on the street or in stores where the elusive 75 could be found. Some, in their best Italian gestures, pointed generally in a vague direction. Some brushed me off with an “I don’t know.” The classic shrug. In time I found myself at the entrance of the vast railroad station. Ah, yes, there was a bus cluster over to one side…dozens of them, shipping out in all four cardinal directions and others in between. But with all the numbers posted, nary could I locate #75. More pleas for assistance. Different people had me going back and forth in opposite directions so that I felt like an old fashioned pinball. FINALLY! Somebody set me straight—down Via Cavour, a main artery of the city. Even then, the stop was not clearly marked. #75 just happened to pull up where I happened to be. At last! I was on my way, but where to? There are no maps indicating stops. One just has to drum up whatever masculine intuition he has. (Women are much more adept at this). I saw some of the great and grand sites that make Rome Rome. I would save them until after Madhu arrived. But though the scenery was exciting, I was becoming a bit exercised wondering where I was supposed to get off. Finally I approached one nice lady local who said “HERE!” Where was here? My hotel map was of little help. But I hit the streets walking. And lo and behold, I found myself at the base of Monte Gianicolo. It requires a bit of an uphill truck, but the temperature was still fresh, I was in high gear, and the residential neighborhood which clings to the hill presented a nice scene, reminiscent of Telegraph Hill, S.F.
Let me digress for a moment. Again, whatever one says about the streets of San Francisco, they have a long way to go to descend to the deteriorated condition of Roman streets. I was not on the Appian Way, but after 2000 years it must be in better shape than the avenue my rattle-trap bus had to negotiate. Whatever one has read about the famous roads that bound together an empire, they may still be there in Rome, but they haven’t been maintained since the Caesars. The bouncing and rotten rattle of a bus in agony gave the impression that army tanks maneuver on them. I jest. Those roads could rip the treads off such vehicles. Today, the punishment dished out on a bus seat occupied by a man could render him infertile. All roads lead to Rome, but one would be well advised not to travel on them.
To continue: I trekked up the Monte to be greeted by indeed a marvelous vista of the city spread out below. Compare it to the experience visitors (and even locals) know when they pause on the summit of Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, though the Gianicolo stands a bit higher. The emblematic cypress trees and pines festoon it. Classical Italian music composer Ottorino Respighi created a series of tone poems about the pines of Rome. The trees on this site are one of the compositions. With plenty of time on my hands, I just leisurely took in the intoxicating scene, snapping a few photographic mementos, though wishing I had someone to share all this with. My progress up the grade was interrupted by a stop at the mausoleum where the Father of modern Italian independence is buried—Giuseppe Garibaldi. Further homage is paid to him at the summit with an immense statue of him on horseback in a pose that would be the envy of the emperors. Round about, one chances on a lovely park, featuring marble busts of other famous Italians that border the street. There are plenty of refreshment stands, and a merry-go-round for wee folk. It was a very exhilarating moment. Respighi knew where to find inspiration.
From there it was all downhill back into the whirlpool that is modern Rome. The other location I had in my head to see was the famous church of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, where tradition has it that one of the two founding apostles of the Catholic Church was beheaded and buried. Little did I realize how far afield that noble building really is, though the guidebook and the map certainly gave me a hint. The site was beyond the scope of the map! That should have told me something. And without a map, one is totally lost. Though, even with a map, I was at a loss. So what was new? I had it in my head (not much there) that it was on the other side of the Tiber River. I had no doubts I would eventually come upon it. Fat chance! I walked along the river road, traversing the Ponte Principe (bridge) which afforded an awesome view of the Castel Sant’ Angelo in the distance. Eventually I turned right, thinking I found what I sought. Of course not, though I did trace my way through many an enchanting street and alley. It’s this sort of thing that makes travel so much fun…the unexpected finds and discoveries. But damned if I could find St. Paul’s. I dropped into a little shop, seeking help from the jolly English proprietress. She knew of the place, and even recalled having visited once, but she had no idea where to find it, except to say that it was a long way from here. And as the old Irishman would have said: “Lad, if I was going there I wouldn’t be starting from here.” So, this venture was over. I decided this worn out body needed a little essential nourishment, and give my feet a break. I settled down in an outdoor restaurant in the Piazza Campo de Fiori, somewhere in the heart of the city. What a delightful spot, though only typical of many, many others that abound around town. And it was a great place to people-watch. It was a needed moment to pause. And I was so thirsty that I demanded a liter bottle of water immediately for refreshment. I quaffed it down like a camel. And I probably smelled like a camel too. I think I could have drunk as much as that beast.
On the road again, I decided to hoof it back to the hotel—yes, hoof it. Actually, it probably demanded no more exertion than one of my ten mile mule walks back home, but I think I covered the distance back to the Milani by a factor of at least two and a half. That is because I became absolutely lost! There are a few necessary observations about the Roman road layout.
Maps are of little help. Some of the roads marked I could not ever locate. Also, sometimes the street names change along the way. Or, worse, a certain” via” would fork off in two directions, and the visitor had no idea which fork was the same-name street as opposed to the branch. Worse, the street names are not always posted where one is supposed to find them, emblazoned on the side of adjacent buildings. I think some of them are segmented around certain structures, so that one never was sure where to pick it up again. Of course there is no grid layout in Rome. I am under the impression that the design, or lack thereof, originated from ancient times, not by intelligent human beings but by livestock, probably inebriated goats. Whatever, unless familiar with the territory, finding one’s way around is akin to tracing strands of tangled string in a large, tight ball of twine. God knows, I have no idea where or what some of the places were that I passed by; now only bound and determined to return to my humble dwelling on Via Majenta. I zoomed by no less than the Forum, hiked Palatine Hill (I think) and traced steps down the opposite side. With so many twists and turns (Are there more twists or turns? Yes!), one’s sense of direction completely fails him, and even the compass seems to give up the ghost. It was becoming very hot now, as was my temper. The huge herds of slow fat, bovine tourists and their progeny slowed my progress to where? I knew not where! I barely gave a glance to the Coliseum (I was saving that spot among others for Madhu later). When at times I realized I was going in the wrong direction, I just added more street stress. And it was not all my fault. I can emphatically point out a phantom street on the map which does not exist in reality. I would ask directions from some friendly policia who happily set me back on the straight and narrow, mostly narrow. My correction: no streets are straight, though many of them are narrow. But in time I stumbled upon, what else, the Via Cavour. It was all uphill from there. And with my energy level in the yellow zone fast approaching red, the distance seemed twice as far as it actually was. Along the way I passed by the glorious Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Before nightfall, glory be to God, I lurched into the Milani, going on a drinking binge (aqua friaof course), and settled down to recharge batteries before Madhu arrived. I am grateful that I would be here to meet and greet him. In the meantime I feel I should be designated an honorary Roman—a roamin’ Roman.
P.S. Fast food (Italian style—expresso). After a brief but well deserved nap, I puttered around the room until early evening when the dinner hour just commenced. Not in a mood to forage for a dining establishment too far afield, I reconnoitered the neighborhood for something that would satisfy a body that had more than earned its nourishment. I settled upon a place just across the piazza. There was a lively clientele patronizing the Ristorante Niagara, and an outdoor table in a balmy climate seemed just the ticket. But this is just the time when a man depends on a woman to know what is best in matters such as culinary quality. I ordered a veal plate with “French” fries and a can of Sprite. There was no vegetable included, which was just fine with me as I had consumed a salad earlier that day of a size that would have satisfied a whole “hare-m” of rabbits. However, the veal, though having fine flavor, together with the fries, was layered in enough grease to make a politician’s hands happy. No woman I know would have acquiesced to dine at this place. It wasn’t really that bad, but I doubt anyone with a will to live would have enough good will to come there regularly. And a credit card was not accepted. Conveniently there was an ATM almost directly next door. Some businesses think of everything.
THURSDAY, JULY 3
SEE ROME AND FRY
Romans 1:1, 7-8: Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the Gospel of God…to all the beloved in Rome, called to be holy. Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. First, I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ for all of you throughout the world.
There was a breaking and entry into my room in the wee hours long before dawn. But a good thing it was. The husband of Meghna Agrawal and father of Reva arrived at last in the person of squire and sire Madhsudan. His was a day long flight that originated in Santiago de Compastella in Spain. He had just completed a more or less 500 mile walking pilgrimage from Spain on the Santiago Trail. This ancient route of religious devotion has become quite the thing over the last few years, for religious motives or otherwise. My sister Kathy and a friend plan on following part of the route later this year.
After 500 miles on the road, Madhu had acquired an appearance even God might have been taxed to recognize. His skin had taken on a decidedly dark tannish complexion; and his black whiskers might have set him up as a viable target for an unmanned drone missile. I could just imagine his encounter at the front desk of the hotel in the wee small hours after midnight. The receptionist might have soiled his pants when this sinister guy materialized out of the dark seeking a room. Madhu told me that the clerk’s first response was, “We have no rooms available! We have no rooms available!” his head shaking violently from side to side. But Madhu, with his easy going personality and engaging smile convinced him that he didhave a reservation. (He only had to check the registry). The next thing you know, he was in my room.
It had been two years since I last saw Madhu, so it was a joyful reunion. Sleep was put on hold. He looked as young and full of energy as ever, though he was sporting that full growth beard. I don’t exactly remember what we chattered on about at that hour, other than personal and family matters, and that, after completing some business in Switzerland for a couple of weeks, he will be returning to the womenfolk back home. If I had a three year old lass I would beat it back posthaste, as such little cherubs change and grow up so fast. As a result, he would not be traveling with me beyond Assisi, but double back to Rome and fly up to Interlaken, Switzerland.
Anyway, the personal headlines were mutually exchanged. Then it was sack time. The beauty of our excursion is that there are no obligations, only following any caprice (that is, whimsy) in the morning; no tour group to report to or booked reservations . We would rise (later) in the morning and go about as we pleased when we pleased. Caprice! (Capriccio!)
Well, the sounds on the street, plus the amplified clang of church bells, guaranteed we would not sleep the day away. As it was, both of us were amazed that it was nearly nine o’clock A.M. Great rest!
We had much ground to cover, though no particular agenda set in stone, though we would see stones, plenty of them. Following breakfast we were directed by the desk to take the blue Metro line (subway) from the train station two stops into the heart of the city, which would bring us to all the action we sought…along with everybody else in the world, or so it seemed. Tourists! We surfaced across the street from the Coliseum. Nothing new here for me. I trudged by that very location less than 24 hours before, so it all looked rather familiar. It was a nice place to begin. After all, Madhu had never been to Rome, (neither, it is rumored, has the Holy Spirit) so it was my duty to share its most famous highlights. It amounted to just that. There are those who turn their noses up at the thought of joining a tour group. But it has its benefits. In the first place, there is no stumbling around wandering or wondering where you are or what a particular attraction is all about. A good, knowledgeable guide takes care of all that. Yes, the large tour party resembles a migrating wildebeest herd (and often sounds and smells like one. Don’t turn up your nose, hold it!) but you glide right through the entry ways, not having to bother about lining up for tickets. (They get groups rates too, which we independents do not). That came home to us graphically when we trotted into the inner caverns of the hallowed sports complex. We would obtain our own tickets. Then an ominous feeling came upon us simultaneously. How long was the line to the ticket kiosk? Lines of humans have beginnings, but one is not entirely sure if there is an end (or vice versa). Madhu scouted out the scene. He was gone what seemed 15 minutes. Not a good sign. He reported that the human chain would seem to wind at least halfway around the circumference of the venerable structure. He estimated we might be there at least half an hour. Half an hour! The only thing in favor of opting for that possibility was the relative coolness from a merciless sun that was already beginning to rise to torrid levels. Forget it. We would reconsider later. Maybe the crowd would shrink. We also did not consider how incredibly rash it was to crash one’s way through numberless bodies behind and then jump through stanchions not designed to release those with second thoughts. However, we did it. On to other possibilities. There was always the Roman Forum.
The Roman Forum (in its time) and tony Palatine Hill (the Beverly Hills or Sea Cliff, S.F.) neighborhoods of their day were alternate options. We scaled the Hill first, only to find after much sweat and bother that the road came to a wicked dead end. Its saving grace was the Church of San Bonaventura which offered a cool, dark refuge from the heat. Slightly refreshed, we retreated back down the grade (I hate retracing my steps, especially when so much toil went into going up in the first place). Then we fell into line with “common” mortals in the direct midday sun to purchase tickets for the Forum. Lost in translation: we thought we had paid for entry, along with one of those handy dandy audio recordings they provide to point out and explain all those rocks and blocks and marble marvels. We were sent off with tickets that were pricier than they should have been—and—no audio. Madhu broke into the line (at cost of his precious mortality) to be informed that we bought into a package that allowed us two days carte blanche entry to both the Forum and the Coliseum. Hooray! We were going to the great circular monument after all. And no waiting or bolting into line!
The Forum: check the sidebars for a detailed background and description of what was ground zero in the ancient Roman Empire. To appreciate its significance, imagine Washington, D.C. and New York City all combined into one metropolis. It was the nerve and circulatory center of a vast political body’s government AND financial center. And throw in the Vatican as it also housed the religious establishment. No separation of powers of church, state, or money here. The emperors back in the first three centuries A.D. resided here (the folks on the hill of Palatine). So did the who’s who of society. If you could not live on Palatine, well, there was always Aventine, Capitoline, and the other four mounds that are the classic Seven Hills.
Ah, the glory and grandeur of human hubris. In their day, no doubt the City must have thought nothing could compare with it. And that it would last forever. After all, even now, as mentioned, it is designated the “Eternal City.” But now…tourists comb through its stone and marble piles (a marble-ous display), and no doubt rodents (rodents!) claim the real estate for themselves at night. Sic transit gloria mundi. One must contemplate the arrogance of the human project when even such as the glory of Rome is reduced to this. Don’t misunderstand me. The ruins are splendid things. I would not for one moment disparage the brilliant achievement of the people who created this wondrous civilization. We should always be grateful to them, and we are. And many other cultures I have had the blessed privilege of visiting up close, including that land of my cherished traveling companion. Talk about a place that has made full use of their genius to accomplish great things. See Rome, and go to India. There are other places as well.
Again, a tour escort would have been appreciated. We put our concise little Fodor’s guide to optimum use, reading up on some of the things we gazed and gawked at. At least bring a book! Otherwise the Forum resembles an urban renewal project that never happened. Thank God. Occasionally we listened in on some English-speaking guide filling in details of columns and arches, and just plain marble “throw-aways” that we could never appreciate at a glance. This was Madhu’s first time in Rome. I was not prepared or qualified to give him the most knowledgeable narrative. But then, when in Rome for the first time, there is no way that one can comprehend all that is to be seen and heard. After all, this is Rome! If I were him, so much of what I had experienced this morning would have been lost in a case of mental overload. But Madhu knows that he will just have to come back here another day.
We romped around, quickly examining everything from the Temple of Romulus to the Column of Phocus to the Arches of Saturn. Madhu realized that if he wants to follow up on all that he saw today, he would have to crack open a book and crash course an elementary introduction to Roman history and culture. I should do the same. Coming to this remarkable city only invites return visits.
Then it was lunch time…which we partook across the street from that fantastical pile of white marble erected in honor of King Victor Emmanuel II, first monarch of modern Italy. Nobody remembers him today and fervently wish they could forget the ostentatious exhibit of unearned glory that commemorates him. I understand it has been branded as a “wedding cake”.
Well, our ticket token was still live, and, we had paid for it. So we ventured forth back to the “Grand Circle” sports stadium to see it as we had originally desired. A lesson here: don’t be cheap when traveling. That is, don’t gut the budget. After all, what is one saving funds for if they are at hand? A trip to the Coliseum doesn’t happen often, if ever; so don’t cry over postcards of places one had the chance to see and did not.
A few extra Euros brought us to a fine climb among the inner and outer reaches of the hallowed hollows here. Of course attention is drawn to the “rink” itself that in its day offered all sorts of sordid, morbid entertainments. Poster-boards in Italian and English describe the history. And it distressed Madhu (and me) to think back on all the vile violence that took place here once. Contrary to popular imagination and myth, no Christians ever witnessed or died here as martyrs for the faith at the hands of gladiators or the paws and claws or provide a beast feast. That happened at the Circus Maximus which today is neglected as an empty, abandoned field off in a nearby neighborhood. Gladiators conducted the mutual warrior slaughters or that of wild animals only slightly less bright than they were. Depictions show the underbelly of the Coliseum where the “athletes” armored themselves and where the poor four legged ones were caged, eventually brought above ground for the blood sport. The Romans also designed an artificial pond on which miniature navies battled it out for glory; coveting a thumbs up from the emperor and his entourage. Well, at least they fought to see the right finger raised. It was all done in great fun, of course We reflected as to why there is such a primordial instinct and excitement for physical violence that lurks secretly or manifests itself publicly in the human psyche psychotic. Why do people become hooked to the blood lust of such “amusement”? Things have improved exponentially over two millennia, I suppose. The thrill of the kill is still there, but at least it now just acted out, not actuated. God forbid that history reverse itself. I am not so sure it won’t.
We spent more than sufficient time in that marble cauldron. The reader can only imagine the oven-like temperatures in such an enclosed mineral environment, unless of course, you were actually in it. Our recourse on leaving was to slurp large gelato cones. Large as they were, I think we still lost more ounces today than we consumed.
That just about did it for the day. Back on the Metro, we saw ourselves back to the station “terminal” and our comfortable cell. Madhu shared with me some brief telephone videos of his precious little princess who longed for his return. I look forward to the day when I can see the whole family. There is so much to in life when one has the patience to wait.
P.S. I discovered that someone had already capitalized on my money-making revenue scheme. I had suggested to no one in particular once that the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco could rake in a few bucks by selling bobble head dolls of the four most recent archbishops of San Francisco in the gift shop as unique souvenirs or…keepsakes, so to speak. Well, that idea has already come to fruition here in Rome. I came upon an outdoor vendor displaying such items, including many famous Roman personalities, among them, no less, Pope Francis. I did not find it in any way offensive. Of course the heads of these dolls nod forward and backward as if to say “yes.” In San Francisco the august personalities would have to shake their heads “no.”
FRIDAY, JULY 4
CALLING ON MOTHER CHURCH
Matthew 16: 17-19: Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
By now Madhu and I have begun to know our way around town. First of all, get an early start, benefitting from the cool morning weather. Our adventure was delayed slightly by shopping over at the train terminal where I found a pair of much needed short ;pants, which make all the difference in this climate. Why did I not bring some to begin with? Well, I did. But they shrunk after I had taken them to a cleaner to remove some stains. Yes, they did fit fine not so long ago. Now completely useless. However, they fit Madhu perfectly! I found a new pair at a Benetton outlet. And while there, we purchased our tickets on the rails for Assisi a couple of days hence. An overly “friendly”, cooperative stranger helped us through the process. He and Madhu hit it off immediately, as the fellow was also a native of the Asian subcontinent. I suspectedhis accent was not Italian. In fact, it was becoming clear to anyone with half a sense of perception that people from India are rather numerous in SPQR. We found them in many shops, dining establishments, on the Metro, and some as visitors such as ourselves. For example, two young families appeared at the hotel breakfast room this morning. It can only be a good thing when Italians and Indians work together.
There were probably some on the Metro this morning, but we had no way of knowing. The law of physics that states that two or more physical objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time was rendered null and void there. Well, perhaps not. Rather, the crush of human flesh together melded into a single biologic organism so tight that it came close to preventing the escape of light just as in a black hole somewhere in outer space. In fact, I told Madhu that I think the grim proximity of bodies in the gruesome black hole of infamy in Calcutta had finally been surpassed. Intimacy is not the word for it. Had I been nestled up against the woman so closely under any other circumstance, I would have been hauled in on charges. Actually, I was fortunate to have gotten aboard at all. Thin, fleet-footed Madhu landed in the coach in one bound. Someone got in my way, however, preventing me a “graceful” entry. So I found myself physically forcing the closing doors back open so that I would not be separated from himself. No big deal. Even if we were, I would have met him at the Ottaviano stop soon enough. Getting there took only about 20 minutes. And everyone else exited as well making it quite clear we would be subject to these beings in the Vatican for nearly the whole of the day. God created us humans because He loves us, which explains why He created so many. But I would humbly suggest he has gotten carried away.
So, there we were. As always, we had no hard and fast plan of action. We would go where we wanted when we wanted on a whimsy. However, the predatory scalpers lurking on the sidewalks (Indians of course), descended on us in vain attempts to sell us admission tickets to the Vatican Museum. They guaranteed that we would avoid the two hour, sun-hot lines that ease up the backside of the walls and be escorted by a guide espresso! The going price…45 Euros (you figure the dollar value. Hint–$50). Out of the question! We ambled our way south through the right portico into St. Peter’s Square and its awesome splendor. Even after having come this way a number of times before, the spot just commands absence of the sublime. Well, you can only begin to imagine what it was my friend to behold it for the first time. We sort of did a walk-about to give him some time to take it all in. But then the troubles set in. In the off-season, one can casually ascend the gentle grade and enter the giant basilica as one can in any church. Not in July*. We had to join another African-style migration that slowly wound its way through the blazing sun up to the right portico. There we had to shed all metallic personal affects to a security x-ray machine. Eventually we escaped into the cavernous building, if for no other reason, to embrace the cool atmosphere. “Come to me and I will refresh you.”
Of course, once inside the real journey began. After taking in the sheer size of Mother Church, I directed good companion immediately to the right to view Michelangelo’s Pieta. I might try to wax eloquently about the sheer power of this divinely inspired work of art, conceived and brought out of marble by a mortal. The emotional, spiritual, visual force of it could only be the work of God and a man together. To concentrate on the face of that Mother, uncomprehending of what just happened to her Son, but accepting it in faith and grace. I yearned to be able to be tuck in a comfortable chair in solitude to contemplate. I am so glad Madhu had the good fortune to see it, and that I had the good fortune to be the one to bring him to it.
But it just lured us to venture farther into the recesses of this holy place. We did ourselves proud with stops at some of them. Of course it was obligatory to view, up close, the main altar under its splendid baldacchino. At that hour we could peer down at the grotto in which Peter, the Prince of the Apostles lies in rest. We ambled and rambled around the glorious precincts, settling down to rest feet at one particular side altar at which Mass was being celebrated. Wouldn’t you know it? The celebrant was Indian! I tell you, you find those people everywhere. And if that was not enough, off to a side wall hung a classic depiction of the patron saint of India, St. Thomas the Apostle, forever probing the wounds of the resurrected Savior.
I can’t recall all the other things we strolled by. Then, we saw some folks disappearing down a twisting staircase to the lower level. Well! It did not demand an entry fee, and no security prevented us from doing so, so we followed. Friend and I descended into a large chamber that housed the final resting places of a number of bishops of Rome, some going back to remote times; a few more recently, including Pius XI, Paul VI (interred ina beautifully simple crypt), and John Paul I.
Back in the basilica, we departed out the south side where we looked down on a pair of brilliantly attired Swiss Guards. No one can come to Vatican City without enjoying in the exotic, ancient plumage these Helvetian men exhibit. However, some appreciation was lost in our need to give our feet a well-earned break, and seek refuge from Brother Sun. We found a nearby trattoria where Madhu talked me into sharing yet another pizza. I had been hoping that with all this hyper physical exertion I could shed at least a few ounces. Madhu has not been any help here. In the meantime, I consumed a liter and a half of bottled water right on the spot.
The pressure did not cease there, but it was the right kind of pressure. After all, how often does one come to the center of the Catholic (and Christian) world? Yes, the price of admission to the Vatican Museum, though steep, was worth it, especially when I could treat my guest to the splendor of the Christian art patrimony which is the Vatican Museum. The price at the official ticket sites were little better than those on the street. We were approached by an enterprising Bangladeshi. The deal was done. Then our effervescent escort, Flavio, led his collection of English-speaking chicks into the inner sanctum of the tiniest country on earth. If nothing else, the relative relief from the heat was worth it. And you meet such fascinating people in these gatherings, including some with rather pathetic hardship stories. I could only sincerely identify with one. A family from San Antonio, Texas had arrived only three days ago. And guess what? Their luggage was lost at…where else…Fiumacino Airport. Three days gone! I shared my own narrative of woe from that same satanic place a few years ago. This was nothing to laugh about. Worse, they were leaving for Assisi in the morning, and wondered how the airport could ever find them and deposit their belongings. I could only suggest that they pray to St. Anthony of Padua, patron saints of lost things, for assistance. I have a good friend who is a devout spiritual daughter of his, and he has never failed her, so why them?
After further thought, I confess I think I sold the beloved airport short. Had only one member of the family been left high and dry without a suitcase, it might have been the terminal’s fault. But if all of the pieces failed to appear, one could only conclude the fault lay somewhere back at another airport. I will never know how this problem played out.
There is no way to recall all that we paraded through on our march down through the galleries. I do remember some really wordy, gassy guides escorting other groups that hogged some of the places of interest, showing off their incredible knowledge of the subject matter, delivering not so much a description as a lecture in the places in which we rendezvoused. The windy things screwed up the whole flow of traffic. All the same, we took in what we could, quickly, and kept moving so as not to be crushed underfoot by the pursuing crazed mob at our heals. We were so captivated with awe by the extraordinary “three” dimensional art decorating the ceilings, the authentic 15th century embroideries lining the walls, the exquisite ancient marble statues and busts, and on and on and on. Madhu asked what function these corridors served in the past, or for that matter—today. As far as I know…none. They were just there to edify the ambient commuter, probably office employees, going back and forth to work. Some commute.
Finally came the finale: the Sistine Chapel. I suppose the experience of passing through (sadly that is all one can do at this hellish time of year) confirms that all that one may have read or looked at in travel brochures. It is true after all. So sad. The huge pungent mass of humanity makes the place resemble a stockyard. Yet, many visitors will never pass this way again, but be impressed with the sheer beauty that it is. In other seasons, one might have the opportunity just to seat him or herself on one of the benches and soak in the sheer artistic genius of that room. It cannot be replicated anywhere else ever. Who accomplished it? Who else? Michelangelo.
What could surpass the Sistine Chapel? Nothing! We were politely escorted out the door back to the north side of the Basilica. There Madhu felt compelled to examine up close the holy Jubilee Door which is only opened with great pomp and purpose by the Pope himself to inaugurate a “holy year.” The next will be celebrated in 2025. Madhu will be waiting.
It need not be said that there are all kind of honors, homage, and recognitions of recent popes, most commonly, of course, John XXIII, John Paul II, and of course the present incumbent, Francis in the souvenir mills outside the Vatican. Sadly, I could little acknowledgment of the pontificate of his still living predecessor, Benedict XVI. He is a man that has vanished from public consciousness, but I am confident he will be recognized and revered in years to come.
One other observation I would offer: people. The Vatican is an immense—place. There is so much to see, but so many people, so little time, and so much heat. All the same, everyone behaves so admirably. It was all so mellow. Everyone seems to be infected with the presence of our Blessed Lord. Unconsciously or otherwise, they are exposed to the beauty of God and of their own pricelessness. There is something about this place that elicits the best of the human race. Then again, maybe we just happened to come here on a good day.
We made one last pass through the basilica. This time we settled on the tomb of the lately sainted John Paul II. Madhu and I stayed a while to keep company with him. And, as we left, I approached his sarcophagus, bearing a request for a wonderful, long-time friend of mine, Lorraine Macias. I asked him to have God continue to look on her with love, grant her good health, care for her family, bring everyone in that family together, as God remembers what a wonderful woman of faith she is; wife, mother, and friend. And JPII had better give an ear. Both of them are Polish!
A quick call was also made at JP’s predecessor, John XXIII. Then, one more walk-about, and we made our departure back to the Ottaviano Station. You know, the Metro was almost as congested as it was this morning.
*Since my return home, I have been informed that the cue and security check is a permanent feature now.
SATURDAY, JULY 5: FESTE ROMANE
Psalm 126: 1-3When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then we thought we were dreaming.
Our mouths were filled with laughter; our tongues sang for joy. Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord had done great things for us; oh, how happy we were!
I figured it out. It requires a diabolic mind to do it. It was Saturday, the Sabbath, so when Madhu and I sallied forth for one final day of Roman adventure, we figured that it was the day of rest for everyone else. Everyone would still be in the sack, and the Metro would offer a spacious, comfortable environment. Wrong! The hominid mass was packed in as tight as a can of Sardinias. Someone said this arrangement is a pickpocket’s paradise. Wrong! No thief could possibly pick pants, purses, or and wallets when the clientele stood together so close and personal. Why does this happen? Some malevolent psychotic controls the tracking of the trains from some undisclosed location. No train proceeds forward until that one ahead had jelled into one gross mass. That is, if say, our stop, Termini, was stuffed with passengers standing so much as three inches apart; it would not be allowed to depart. It hasto be critical mass mess. And of course each succeeding stop was stuffed even more. It was like waiting for the movable beast. They talk about how the trains run on time in Italy. However, no one seems to know what that time is. The experience was about as relaxing as a flight on Con-Air.
Forcing oneself aboard require a primordial inclination for raw, vicious violence. But, once onboard, some kind of serenity ensues, everyone inhales (it’s impossible to exhale) and stands back for the ride. But we never expected that this grim ritual would occur at 9:30 AM on Saturday. Thank God our transit demanded far fewer stops than yesterday, concluding at the Terminal Spagnol.
This put us right in the heart of north Rome, and the center of the celebrated shopping district. If the Vatican is the center of Catholicism, then the narrow unassuming two blocks of the Via dei Condotti beckons as the Valhalla of the shopping world. But these are not shops, mind you. They are purveyors of quality merchandise unaffordable to the unwashed. A partial list of the esteemed emporia include Gucci, Prada (loved by the Devil), Bulgara, Damiani, Cartier, Giorgio Armani, Ferragamo, Valentino, Max Mara, Brioni, Omega, Bally, and Dior. This was just a partial list. The only one I failed to locate was Tiffany’s (straight-back or stiff knees, they stand tall at Tiffany’s). It was sensational watching the gentle, fairer sex exuberantly march from store to store like a pride of lionesses on the chase. Men folk will never be able to fathom, and so it shall always be. The mystery cannot be explained by prices. A purchase in just one just one average skirt or purse cancels out any possibility of a child attending college. The shoes, yes the shoes. They are not even made in China. They’re local!
And so we made our tour down and back up the street. We strutted into one men’s clothier just to say we did it. Anything we might have laid out ducats would have led eventually to extreme buyer’s remorse. How could Madhu face the lady folk after that? He and I were not even mildly tempted. Instead we scaled the so-called Spanish Steps, which is where everyone goes for the “scene”, and to be seen. I have never understood the celebrity of the Steps. There are others in the city just as attractive, and just as steep. But these have promoted a lasting, mysterious, mystique. Unfortunately the church at the top of the landing was shrouded in scaffolding and netting. There always have to be some famous places wrapped in such stuff. So we turned left up toward the Villa Medici. Beyond a famous art museum, one can take in some more incrediblel views of the city, never tiring of its allure. Then we turned right into the Gardens—acres and acres of quiet, inviting green—the everlasting pines and cypress (and would you believe a couple of palms?). Broad pedestrian thoroughfares are lined with still another collection of busts of famous Romans and Italians. Like the Monte Giancolo, a merry-go-round would keep the halflings amused. We lunged out on a bench just taking in the sheer peace of it all. No humanity, no insanity, no noisy, polluting vehicles. Why we could even exchange conversation. We made the rounds of this urban oasis before returning out the same entrance. The pleasant walk took us blessedly downhill to the section of town known as Barberini, site of the famous Triton Fountain. It is worth a photo opportunity, and has been described musically by the same Ottorino Respighi who loved fountains as much as pine trees. Hunger brought us to the Conte de Gallucicio Bat, Restaurant, and Pizzeria on the tony Via Veneto, which winds serpentine up a grade, along which is clustered a number of foreign embassies, and residential villas.
We still had promises to keep and miles before we would sleep. So we wended and wove our way down the charming narrow alleys congested with numberless small restaurants and other dining establishments, micro-small shops and galleries, produce markets, and piazzas great and small that shed a little sunlight here and there. Madhu insisted on seeing Trevi Fountain, and who could blame him? Well somebody had to be blamed for the great disappointment of the trip so far. Trevi was fenced off, drained, and dried for renovation. Couldn’t the city have waited until the off-season to do this? It was nothing more than a construction site. Dommage.
We continued west, crossing the Via della Corso and down still another warren of the same businesses to pay respects at the Pantheon. This splendid structure has stood on the spot since before the Christian age. Built under the aegis of the Emperor Hadrian, it served as a major place of pagan worship. When the heathen era drew to a close, the vibrant Christian faith appropriated the fine structure, converting it into the basilica it is today. A marvel of architecture and engineering, the Pantheon boasts the largest free standing dome in circumference in the world to this very day. It houses some beautiful artworks, and houses the bones of Raphael, the distinguished Renaissance artist. However, it is almost impossible to appreciate all this since the human herd transforms the precinct into another of those stockyards. I figured that many, if not most of the visitors had no idea even what purpose the Pantheon serves. Funny thing about “tourists”. They romp in armed with cameras and other devices. They scatter and shoot every cranny and angle (there are no corners here) unaware of where they are and what the church is. Photo-op. Well, maybe this is God’s way of slowly luring them to becoming fascinated with Himself. For some, that may take as much time as only God has.
My fellow traveler and I had one more destination to check out. Threading our way down the back alleys once more, we were headed to the Castle Sant’ Angelo, onetime residence of the popes in centuries gone by. Along the way we stumbled on the ………Piazza Navona. The center of attention and attraction is the immense marble allegory of gods and satyrs depicting what were thought to be the four major rivers of the world in the late 16th century: the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube, and the Rio Plata. The Rio Plata! I regretted that there was not enough time just to settle in for a while to appreciate this spot, and maybe enjoy a coffee or something. But I had seen the Castle on every trip prior and never got to it.
Well today, I finally did. Bordering the Tiber just a short distance from the Vatican to the west, this immense brick pile, originally constructed by the Emperor Hadrian, saw it once serve as a safe refuge for endangered popes. I got to thinking: every bishop should probably have the equivalent of a Castle Sant’ Angelo in his diocese. My experience with them tells me that there’s no telling when such a secure space might become necessary. I can think of a few candidates who have been lucky so far without one.
Today the fortress houses an extensive collection of classical sacred Renaissance art. There are twisting caves and caverns leading into its belly, and one can ascend so high that he thinks he might indeed encounter an angel or two at the top. Yodeling seems very appropriate up here. And of course there are the vistas. I will just leave it at that.
Today was Sunday-eve. Tomorrow would present no opportunity to attend Mass, so Madhu and I traipsed back to the Pantheon for the 5 P.M. Incredible! In front of the sanctuary are pews that can handle maybe 150 faithful for Mass. They were entirely occupied when we arrived. Just before Mass it was announced on a public announcement system that anyone not intending to go to worship must leave. A massive flood poured out of the premises, leaving the remnant of us with plenty of seating space. The liturgy was conducted by a venerably ancient priest who must have been ordained during the pontificate of Urban VIII. In fact, he reminded me young of Mr. Grace from the hilarious British comedy, “Are You Being Served?” The worshippers were indeed a very pious folk. But what a sad scenario! Nearly everyone present was foreign travelers such as ourselves. Did that long serving, faithful priest epitomize the presbyterate of the home city of the Catholic Church? Granted, as apartment mate Milt Walsh pointed out, few local citizens actually live in these districts. Yet was there no faithful to give praise to God in this neighborhood? How does this bode for the future of Christianity at its very heart?
And after the liturgy concluded, the floodgates were reopened and a cascade of creatures swept through with the tide.
Madhu and I were on the way back to the settlement now. We would have an early rise to catch the train to Assisi. On the way we dined one more time in Rome at an outdoor restaurant on one of those fascinating alleys, nourished as much by the passing parade of humanity as the cuisine. That was just a warm-up for the Metro ride back to Piazza Independencia. Guess who was on that train? But I guess I have already told that story.
SUNDAY, JULY 6
Psalm 122:1-2: I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” And now we are standing within your gates.”
Arrivederci Roma. Well, it might not have occurred the way we intended, but God has mercy on slow-witted senior men sometimes. Madhu arose with the dawn before me— for a change. After both of us had accomplished the morning routine we leisurely bade farewell to the Hotel Milani and struck out for Assisi, in the province of Umbria. No sweat. We simply strolled over to the main train terminal, ready to board our coach. Which coach? Which train? No sign or board indicated where we were to go. Thank God the locals are so kind to hapless strangers. On inquiry we were motioned way, way, way, out along Track #1-E. There was to direct us that that was where we were to go. You have to know the territory. And I think we covered half of distance to Assisi as we dashed Pall Mall with little time to spare. Onboard! We could finally exhale. In minutes we were out of town. And it was so peaceful. We had most of that coach pretty much to ourselves. All silence. This was not the Metro.
In no time we could view the panorama of the countryside, which we remarked, as just has anyone else who has been here, that rural Italy could easily pass for rural central California. The terrain became increasingly hilly as we progressed, and where the land allowed, was dominated by agriculture. As we approached closer to our destination, olive groves became conspicuous, and of course, vineyards. Along the way a train conductor asked to see our tickets. Oh boy! We failed to have them validated back before boarding. For some reason, a passenger must validate their ticket. Why? Who knows? But the gentleman proved to be of good humor, helped along by Madhu whose gracious disposition allowed us to get by without having to pay a penalty. I swear Madhu could charm the warts off toads or melt a bishop’s cold heart. Afterward, he showed me most of the 1000+ photos in his camera recording his recent Santiago pilgrimage. I have invited him to share his saga in these pages. It will certainly be an inspiring read.
Two hours later, arrival at the Assisi train station, which, you understand, is quite a few miles from the town itself, which is located at a rather steep elevation to the east. Almost everyone on the train disembarked. Then there was a crushing lineup for bus tickets. I had the foresight to purchase my next ticket to Arezzo from which I will move on to Parma a couple of days from now. Oh, the bus! It was the Metro all over again, if on a vastly smaller scale, but just as tight. Passengers failed to display the kind of attitude one would expect on the eve of an arrival to the town of the Povarello. However, no blood was shed, and eventually we were dropped off at our stop—which turned out to be the end of the line. We found ourselves in the middle of town. A kindly trattoria proprietor pointed us down the fascinating medieval lanes to our next rendezvous, the Del Priore Hotel, close by the Piazza Communale.
Checked in: the room, shall we say, was adequate, lacking a few amenities of the Milano, but so what? We were there only to sleep and shower. And Madhu takes advantage of that as much as he can and did! That would come later. Out the door, we stopped briefly for a light lunch (as if any meal in Italy is light). But we headed out straightway through the narrow corridors of this beloved old town to the west end and the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. For both of us this was one of THE prime purposes for coming on this European excursion at all. Madhu would make his first visit to the home of the beloved holy man. For me it was a homecoming after 21 years. The initial experience for my buddy I think caught him off guard. We turned a corner to look down on the church in the shining splendor of midday. In no time we entered within to find, as one might expect, an overflow crowd in fervent prayer. The Sunday liturgy was just concluding. As at the Pantheon last night, as soon as the celebrant exited, the gates were open and opposing currents erupted, one of the faithful leaving, and the other in which the visitors flowed in. Even after the Mass was finished, a delightful choir of cute little characters continued to warm up the crowd with its angelic choral recital. Quiet reflection proved daunting, what with the unending din of chatter, despite vain request to tone it down by the management. Thus is the price religious sites of notoriety. After a while Madhu and I took off downstairs to say hello to the remarkable individual whose magnetic holiness continues to draw so many to this place after nearly 800 years.
This is difficult. As soon as we were seated, I just broke down in a flood of tears. I was home. Twenty-one years prior Ma, Pa, Brother Bill and I paid our respects at this very place. At that time I was able to celebrate a Mass at the foot of St. Francis’ crypt. Just the four of us. That certainly was not the cause of tears now. It has been the whole darn thing since. St. Francis is the reason for my priesthood. I celebrate it. I love it. I cherish it. It has been given to me by God. Of that I have no doubt. The intervening 21years have been so difficult, minus an exceptional few. (God bless my Filipino family!) Now I feel just lost, wondering where I go from here. Long ago I decided that I will have to serve the good Lord Jesus Christ in some other, unconventional way. In the meantime, so much solitude, so much exclusion and isolation, the many meals taken alone. So I came here to let it all out—and I did. A time for tears. Madhu could not have been more supportive as he wrapped his arm around me to give comfort. God sent him as a friend and buddy to be there for me. I needed the company. I could not be more grateful or blessed. And I am certain that I have served God by introducing him to the phenomenal man in the crypt above us. Madhu has no idea how close God is to him, and to Meghna and Reva. Not yet.
We spent quite a while there. Many people of course milled in and out. But the group that impacted me most was a number of women and men with Down’s syndrome, who gathered in front of the crypt in loud, joyful, vocal prayer…God’s angels.
We returned to the piazza and treaded up the steep narrow lanes into town. The incredible views of the valley below invited gazing. We paused at one of the countless refreshment establishments for a little to sample the merchandise. Madhu checked out some of the souvenir shops in search of a cloth patch of Assisi which he could affix to his backpack. He has begun quite an impressive collection of these patches. Tomorrow I would be on the hunt for some appropriate gifts for the best people as well. Then, persuaded by Brother Sun in midafternoon we followed in that most hallowed Italian custom: the siesta. Madhu is good at that. And so it came to pass.
As dusk was approaching, we headed in the opposite direction to check out the Church of Santa Chiara—St. Clare— collaborator of St. Francis and spiritual sister and confident. I probably should have known this, but I had no idea she was buried below the church. I had assumed she would be at San Damiano, home of her sisters and house of the original San Damiano Cross.
Finally our stomachs told us that dinner was in order, so we settled upon another little eatery with outdoor dining. Madhu enjoyed a healthy salad while I happily devoured lemon chicken. So many good meals to remember, but Mangiar Divino has a lot going for it. And my dearest lady friends would have been happy to share the chocolate mousse that finished it all off.
Back on the “avenue” we recalled our way down to Piazza Communale, settling down on the stairs of the fountain to hear the choir of swallows praising God with their evening Vespers and joyous swarming over our heads as the sun faded away. And as in Rome, I immersed myself in the atmosphere of peace that pervades this holy place, especially all the people—different sorts of people—who come to sample God’s loving presence is here. There were so many families around with children from newborn to adolescents. Everyone seemed so happy, so in harmony with themselves, each other, and the divine Benevolence Himself. Madhu and I have engaged in much serious discussion of faith and religion, and tonight over cappuccino was just the latest chapter. But it was enough to fatigue this fragile mind. So it was back to the loft to recollect the day on paper and settle in for more grace tomorrow
P.S. As we observed the human maelstrom swirl about us in the main basilica earlier today, my attention was drawn to a certain young man, maybe about 19 or 20 years of age, saunter by, an expression of cynical, smug reassurance imprinted on his face as he scanned the scene before him. But what really caught my eye was the T-shirt he wore, which announced in bold script: “I reject your reality and substitute it with my own.” Hence an encounter between the man of faith and a son of the 21st century. I wondered what pulsed through the boy’s mind. I suppose at the moment he was not entirely sure either. But who knows, it can happen that such a candidate as this may discover what Francis knew and yet become a minstrel of the Great King as the one who so many come to venerate. Just maybe.
What accounts for the intense devotion to this little man of a country town after so many centuries? In the morning shower it came to me. The true Light burns so intensely that our spiritual eyes just cannot behold it directly, much as St. Paul experienced on the Road to Damascus. St. Francis serves as a pair of sunshades, if you will, helping to filter that Light until we are able to gaze on it directly.
MONDAY, JULY 7: OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Psalm 1: 1, 2, 3: Happy are those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked…rather, the law of the Lord is their joy. They are like a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in due season;
it’s leaves never wither; whatever they do prosper.
Madhu remarked about what he thought were some rather sourpuss locals. Italians have such a reputation for joy. So why so dour? I had a ready answer to that. The country was still going through a grieving process for having been eliminated from the World Cup competition so early. They’ll get over it. Besides, with the US also ousted, we could commiserate together.
One man who appeared to have lemon juice flowing through his veins was the nearby travel agent, referred to us by the hotel desk. Whatever his temperament, he proved to be tremendously helpful for assisting us in our travel plans two days hence. Madhu needed advice on which way to return to Rome…either by bus or to stick with the train. (Oh yes, he had to change his plans, heading to Switzerland one day earlier than anticipated). In a sense, it was a no-brainer. He had already paid for the train ticket. However, the bus could take him directly to the airport at Fiumacino. Wise counsel said “train.” He could pick up an express that, of course, would bypass some of the stops of yesterday, bringing him intro Rome at a very comfortable hour before boarding the airplane at 1:30 PM. That settled it. Too bad my good friend would have to arise at something like 4:45 AM! I would be with him to see him off. Then he wrote up a ticket for me that would spare me the hassle of doing so in Arezzo. I had my pass to Parma, as long as I knew where to get on (that’s a switch). Better, I would arrive at more or less 4 PM, saving my hosts from coming out later in the evening. I emailed them the revised plan. They responded overjoyed. I would be home for dinner.
Now on to the day’s itinerary: to my way of thinking, there are three essentials locations that demand to seen in this vicinity. The first happened yesterday at the Basilica of San Francesco and the grotto below. The second—the Portiuncula, aka the Church of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula. Believe it or not, the city of Los Angeles, California is named for this humble place. It was from here that St. Francis set up his headquarters, forming his band of brothers to go out, revitalize the Church and conquer the world for Christ. Anyone familiar with Franciscan lore need not be reminded that the miniscule church measures not much more than a couple of walk-in closets. It has been housed in an immense church that so dwarfs it that a first-time visitor might overlook it on first glance. I was concerned that we would not be able to glance at it either outside or inside, so small is it. When last I passed through, Brother Bill and I made a cursory stop only because some party of tourists had already crammed themselves into it, giving no indications of leaving, and our time was limited.
Today, glory be to God! It was available. Of course there were others present, but they were there to pray, not just create one more personal postcard. Madhu and I staked out some space, opening our minds and souls to the utter beauty of the One ever ancient, ever new present there. The presence of the Holy One permeates the interior like incense. Subdued light enhances the altar candelabra glow. The worshipers were engrossed in their silent communion with Him. The Portiuncula, given time, might create a few instant mystics. I could only just keep my mouth shut and my mind open in silence. At one point I left to catch a few photo clicks round and about, re-entering the chapel again. For a few minutes I sat down and rested my head against the sanctuary grill. It seemed a fitting depiction of where my life has been in the Church…on the outside looking in. Eventually Madhu and I realized it was time to leave. I was surprised to find a grotto a few yards away that proclaims the spot at which Francis died. From there “Christmas” took over…buying gifts and sending cards. I know the gift shop lit a candle of thanksgiving for me after all the transactions I made.
The shuttle bus retrieved us for the return back “uptown”. A little respite before the cleaning ladies evicted us from the room; we hit the street (walking) down, down, down, down, down to the Convent of San Damiano. Situated about halfway down the slope to the valley, this final holy spot made a visitation desirable. This was the third destination. It was in this once broken-down, abandoned and forgotten old church that St. Francis received his orders to rebuild the church from God, as he understood them. The communiqué came through the old Byzantine cross housed there. That of course, is the now immortal San Damiano Cross. Before his death, it became the chapel of the Second Order of Franciscans (women) popularly known as the Poor Clares, founded by his spiritual sister Clare, who founded a house of prayer there. They are still there. So is the cross, or so I am led to believe. I have been under the impression that the one on pubic exposition is a copy, but I don’t want to know. As far as I’m concerned, it is the real article.
Madhu and I then descended a hideously steep path. I fretted the later hike back up. Bill and I did the same route once, but I was 21 years younger then and packing a bit less bulk. In time we arrived. The tour begins in the chapel from which is displayed the world famous icon. It glowed in a soft light in an otherwise dark chamber. Only by chance did I discover that exiting through a door to the right of the sanctuary, one could see the historic chambers of Claretian history. Some of them, such as the refectory, are still used today. The mini-tour brought us to an inner garden that just afforded time for reflection to nourish inner peace. If San Damiano took overnight reservations, I am sure Madhu would have stayed until tomorrow.
Now came the hilly ascent. I feel, and am proud. For one for whom a profile photo can only be taken as a landscape shot, I did pretty well scaling the mount to town again. In little time we found ourselves in the Assisi’s lower parking lot. Thanks be to God, Madhu stumbled upon not one but two good old fashioned escalators that transported us right up to the edge of town.
A brief pause, and we fortified ourselves (well, he did) with a cappuccino and a pastry. What’s wrong with the man? Does he want to resemble a Happy Buddha like me? After all, he has a wife and a child to support.
So, we made it our final destination to see our friend Francis one more time. Who knows when either of us might be back this way again? The grotto was the usual chaos, confusion, and commotion of that humanity that God is so inexplicably in love with. Why does it come here? Francis issues a gentle invitation. He serves as a link. To those not Christian, or familiar with the Christian faith (sadly including many baptized), “paper” Catholics, it is a welcome opportunity to rethink and re- enter into the Good News—some for the first time—others again for the first time. Nothing is threatening about Francis. For those overwhelmed by guilt, too often unmerited, it is time of cleansing, and a beckoning to come home, to be introduced to the One who lived, died, and was raised to eternal life so that all of us could follow and live, fully, so that He can love us as He intends to. Here comes everybody. One can only hope.
Speaking of everybody: on this second and last vigil kept at the holy man’s place, I specifically and intentionally prayed for two groups of people. The first consisted of bishops: all bishops to begin with, taking into account the heavy office of chief shepherds of their flock. But most especially, those who have done so much harm to my life and that of many brothers. This is not the first time I have prayed for them at this very spot. Sadly though, after 21 years, that list of men has grown. May God grant them the mercy they themselves have not granted us.
The other consisted of my beloved fraternity, living and deceased, who have been dismissed from their priesthood, and for all intents and purposes, from the Mystical Body by those mentioned above. The male of the human species seldom if ever expresses emotions openly, and do so only at great risk if he is a clergyman among a hard-boiled blessed bunch of brother priests. God has melted, melded and molded us into a bond that could only happen in the present circumstances. Defying the playbook, we have survived and thrived together because of our adversity… stronger in our relationship to our sacred Lord than we could otherwise ever be. There is a grace in this.
Throughout this journey I have kept in hand a handy dandy little compass that points out whatever direction I am going, or should be going. I pray to St. Francis that he might provide a compass that would point out the direction for the rest of my life.
Once again, after shedding a few more tears, Madhu and I ascended to the great outdoors. Good bye, Francis, dear friend of God and of so many others. Somewhere I (we) will meet you again. The swallows will be singing soon. Right now there falls a gentle rain.
TUESDAY, JULY 8: CIAO TO CHOW
Psalm 133: 1-2: How good it is, how pleasant, where the people dwell as one!
Like precious ointment on the head, running down upon the beard.
I have known what it is to awaken to the sound of a rooster reveille in the early morning…but pigeons? Such it was at the predawn hour of 4:30 when Madhu lifted off his bed to depart town by bus down to the train depot and his return to Rome. From there he would transfer out to the airport and arrive at his final destination in Basel, Switzerland. Of course I was there to see him off.
We came into the lobby only to find it pitch-black. We almost had to grope our way to the front door to discover it closed tight and locked. There was a key in a latch, but darned if we could get it to cooperate. I have never found myself in this position before. Hotel incarceration. Grazia a Dio, Madhu spied a sleeping body stretched out on a lobby couch. We roused him and he kindly opened up the establishment. It was still absolutely still on the street of Assisi, so eerily unlike the action that would commence in just hours. The streets glistened from an overnight shower. I accompanied him down to the Santa Chiara Piazza. There is no telling when we would meet again. I suppose he will have a few more gray hairs, and I will a few less. I reminded him to give a huge kiss and tight hug to his beloved Meghna and more to Reva. We both wiped a tear away. (No wonder my hide was in such a severe state of dehydration). At his request, I bestowed on him a blessing. Then in the darkness I watched him make his way through the city arch and fade out of sight. Ciao, signore.
Monday, July 7, 2014
“Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”
“Holding my hand, he took me towards the bright light, together with a big white dove bird.” Tears rolled down my cheeks and deep emotion filled my heart, the moment I entered the St. Francis Church in Assisi, and that’s when I saw the vision, and I knew I had arrived home.
Francis came in my life through Fr. Henry in the year 2000 in San Francisco. “It was after watching the film on St. Francis that I decided to become a priest,” he told me. This was imprinted in my mind and every time he mentioned about him, I felt a deep connection and stirring in my heart. As I left the US to come back to India, he gave me a statue of Francis as a gift, and I didn’t realize the importance of it in my life till I saw it again after 13 years and I longed to visit Assisi. This dream came true, when after walking the path of Santiago in Spain this summer, I visited Italy. It wasn’t a coincidence that Fr. Henry too was visiting Italy at the same time and together we had the opportunity to visit Assisi. I felt immensely grateful for Fr. Henry’s affectionate presence in my life and was in awe of the arrangement in life.
The statue of Francis sitting on a horse outside the church got my attention. It read:
“Lord, what do you want me to do?” Go back to your city and you will be told
what you must do.” At the break of day, Francis, with his reformed inner self, de-
sired only to conform to me the will of God.
I felt this message spoke directly to me, as for the last couple of months I have been praying to God to give me direction, so that I could dedicate my life to the work he wants me to do. I feel this grace happens when our heart is opened and all we can do is to wait and practice small acts of love till we realize our life’s work and gift.
As I sat in the beautiful small chapel of St. Francis, where his last remains are kept, a profound feeling of love and stillness entered my heart and a clear voice told me, “Give, give, give; never hold back. Give whatever you can.”
When you will meet your fellow pilgrims, you will both recognize each other through your eyes. There will be seven of you and when you will all meet, sit around a fire and you will know what to do. You don’t have to search for them; you will all find each other. I asked for a sign to tell myself that what I heard was not just from my mind, and I looked at the prayer beads which Fr. Henry had gifted me; it had seven crosses. The more I believe the more it seems real.
“Make me a channel of your peace”; with this prayer of Francis in my heart, I felt Assisi, promising myself to keep the fire burning and deeply listening to the calling of my heart.
I am so grateful to God for Madhu. He will eventually read this log. I will only say that he has been a
blessing in my life, and of course in that of many, many other people. So considerate of others, he even busses his table at a trattoria which shocks and delights the waiter or waitress. He can bring out the best of just about anyone. And I have no doubt that he could have substituted for St. Francis in taming the legendary Wolf of Gubbio. We met by chance nearly 15 years ago when he was even thinner than he is today. It was through him that I met Meghna and many other great folks in India during my epic “injourney” there a few years ago. On this journey we have shared many hours discussing subjects of faith. I am so happy to have introduced him to the Person of Jesus Christ in a deeper way than he had known, and impress on him how overwhelmingly loved he is by God. God’s love just radiates from him. Pax et bonum. (Peace and goodness).