Tag Archives: pilgrimage

St. Philip Neri, (1515-1595)

St.-Philip-2

Philip Neri, whose feast is today, helped rejuvenate the Catholic church in the city of Rome following the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. He’s an important example of the way reform can take place in the church.

Philip came to Rome as a young man, became a priest, and fell in love with the city’s history, its churches and holy places. He roamed the catacombs of St. Sebastian where early Christians were buried and was a regular guide for pilgrims searching for their roots. He promoted pilgrimages to the great churches of St.Peter’s, St.Paul outside the Walls, St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, Holy Cross, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major, which are still the major pilgrim churches of the city.

Philip was also a familiar figure on the Roman streets where he engaged ordinary people, especially the young, with cheerfulness and simple conversation. People listened to him and he listened to them. He made people aware of the beauty and joy of an ancient faith.

Philip inspired saints like Ignatius Loyola, Charles Borromeo and Pius V.

In his day Protestants were turning to history to back up their claims against the Catholic Church. At the same time Philip encouraged Catholic scholars and historians like Caesar Baronius to look into the history of their church with fairness and accuracy.  Baronius said of him: “I love the man especially because he wants the truth and doesn’t permit falsehood of any kind.” He supported Galileo: “The bible teaches the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

In promoting an honest study of church history and archeology Philip was influential in helping the Catholic Church examine its traditions and roots. At a time when fierce controversy between Protestants and Catholics was the norm, Philip brought gentleness, cheerfulness and friendship and a search for truth to Christian reform. He believed reform would best come about by showing the beauty of faith in art, music and tradition.  He was an unassuming man. A biographer said “ his aim was to do much without appearing to do anything.”

He died in Rome on May 26, 1595, at eighty years of age.

The great Christian scholar John Henry Newman, attracted to Philip Neri,  entered the religious society he founded, the Oratorians.

Here’s one of his prayers I like: ” Let me get through today, and I won’t worry about tomorrow.”

God our Father, you are continually raising to the glory of holiness  those who serve you faithfully.In your love, hear our prayer:  let the Holy Spirit inflame us with that fire with which, in so admirable a way,  he took possession of Saint Philip’s heart.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,  who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,  one God, for ever and ever.Amen.

Where did it happen?

We wonder where the gospel events took place, especially during Holy Week.. Where was Jesus judged by Pilate? What way did he go to Calvary?  Where was he crucified and where was he buried?

Reliable historians generally agree that the tomb of Jesus and the site of Calvary are  in the Church of the Holy Sepucher.  “Is this the place where Christ died and was buried?” Jerome Murphy-O’Connor asks in his solidly researched “The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide” (New York, 2008). “Yes, very probably,” he answers. (p 49)

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Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Jerusalem’s “Via Dolorosa”, the traditional way of the cross,  is less historically reliable. Beginning near St. Stephen’s Gate, where the Fortress Antonia once stood, it winds up at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  Murphy-O Connor says it is “defined by faith and not by history.” (pp 37-38) Early Christian pilgrims created it.

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Pilgrims on the Vis Dolorosa

After the Christian church was established by Constantine in the 4th century, pilgrims from Mount of Olives, where many stayed, walked through St. Stephen’s Gate up to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, stopping at certain places to recall incidents from the passion of Jesus. The present Via Dolorosa was formed from their devotions over the centuries.   (cf. Murphy-O’Connor, p 37) Pilgrims, not archeologists, have given us the present Via Dolorosa.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus

Is their a more reliable way?  A reconstruction of Jerusalem (above) from the time of Jesus at the Israel Museum–somewhat altered here– suggests another way that  Jesus was led to Calvary.  At the bottom right is the luxurious palace complex built by Herod the Great. (below) When Pontius Pilate came from Caesaria Maritima for Passover he probably stayed there and judged Jesus in the courtyard outside the palace.

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Herod’s Palace, the Citadel

After sentencing Jesus to death, Pilate handed him over to a detachment of soldiers quartered somewhere in the great towers to the left of the palace, who scourged him and crowned him with thorns.

They then led him away to Calvary, probably parading him through part of the upper city as a warning to others. In our map of Jerusalem above, the rock outcropping near to the city wall is the site of Calvary where Jesus was crucified. The gospels say  he was buried in a tomb only a stone’s throw away.
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In Jerusalem today the Citadel stands on the ruins of Herod’s palace, still dominating the western part of the Old City.

You can walk on the southern ramparts of the city wall where Herod’s palace once stood and view some few remains of Herod’s building;  the towers have been rebuilt.

Murphy-O’Connor suggests a way  Jesus was taken to Calvary from here. “If, as seems likely, Jesus was brought into the city on his way to execution, the approximate route would have been east on David Street, north on the Triple Suk, and then west to Golgotha.” (p.38)

I walked that way some years ago, down David Street, to the Triple Suk and then west to Golgotha and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  My sense is Murphy-O’Connor is right, but I think we better not change the Via Dolorosa. For one thing,  good piety has given us the present Via Dolorosa and it has a truth and beauty all its own.  More importantly, it would start a war in Jerusalem, and the city has enough grief now.

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For more information on the places of the Passion, see

The Visitor

This Wednesday’s Gospel (Lk 1: 39-56 ) tells the beautiful story of Mary’s visitation to her cousin’s house in the hills near Jerusalem.

“ Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said,
‘ Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ “
This is indeed a precious, sacred event. Mary goes on to “ prophesy “ with her song-like, much-beloved Magnificat, a prayer that always seems new every time I pray it.
Nearly six years ago I was blessed to visit the wooded valley of Ein Karem, one of the most beautiful places in Israel. It seems almost miraculous how, with only one turn in the road, one leaves behind the barren Judean desert and enters this lovely area full of greenery and life. Up on one of the surrounding hills we visited the place that is commemorated as the site of the Visitation. The view from up there is magnificent. A delicate, elegant church stands there, decorated with symbols of fertility, life, and womanhood. A high wall against the hillside is covered with large stone-carved versions of the Magnificat in many different languages. Joyful song seems to exude from these stones, and from the rich greenery all around. Upon reading the prayer in English and Spanish I was caught up in that joyful feeling, as if, like John, Elizabeth, and Mary, I was also “ filled with the Holy Spirit “ of the Child Jesus. That joy stayed with me for the rest of the day back in Jerusalem. I felt like if I had undergone a powerful supernatural experience, like the one described in the Gospel.
That happy memory is still so vivid in my mind. I have been a Catholic for only a few of my 67 years. Incredibly, most of the time I am still in a sort of “ honeymoon “ with my Lord Jesus, who personally came and opened my eyes to the infinite love of God. So it has taken me a while to come to appreciate and venerate the bountiful power and grace that He has given His Blessed Mother in Heaven.
Her mission seems to me to have mysterious angelic dimensions . She is not only His Messenger, whether in Tepeyac, or Lourdes, or Fatima, but every time we call her she brings her Son, in the most generous way, as she did on the Visitation. All I have to do is invoke her name and she and her Son “ visit me “.

The simple prayer of the Hail Mary tells the story. She has come to me in quiet haste in some of my most sorrowful moments. At her greeting I answer: “ Ave Maria “. The fulness of her grace pacifies my soul, and excites it too, because the Lord is indeed with her as she shares that blessing with me. The child-prophet in me can even leap for joy. The greatest blessing seems to be that of God-given faith, to actually believe that what has been spoken to my soul by my Lord will be fulfilled. She teaches me to pray and trust. She brings me hope, and most of all the boundless love of the “ fruit of her womb “, the living, present, Jesus.
And then she prays for all of us sinners. A perfect prayer is her Magnificat. There is unfettered praise, wonderment, and gratitude at God’s great love. Once again most of all there is trust : trust in the mercy, the strength , the justice, and generosity of our God for all of us, for in one way or another, we are the lowly, the poor, the hungry.
Thank you, Blessed Mother, shining example for all saints, bringer of solace, sister, friend.

Orlando Hernández

Friday Thoughts: Flight Into Egypt

Flight Into Egypt Henry Ossawa Tanner American 1923 Met

Henry Ossawa Tanner, “Flight into Egypt”, (1923) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)


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A young lady and a good man. A tiny precious child. A tired donkey. An angel of God leading them by the lantern in his right hand.

You are one of them. You travel by night. Your party is small. But you are not alone.

The streets are empty. At least as far as you can see. Strange lands this side of the Red Sea.

Jesus is with you. He sleeps in your arms. He takes your family name. He rides upon your back. You walk a few feet ahead of Him to ensure the right and safe path.

You too are Jesus. Born a few days before. Completely wrapped up. Yet totally exposed.

Beyond the frame an onlooker more than watches. He paints the picture. He steadies the easel. He knows exactly where the finished work will hang.

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—Howard Hain

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http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/16947

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After Thoughts: Liturgy of Seasons

Maurice de Vlaminck partie de campagne 1905

Maurice de Vlaminck, “La partie de campagne”, 1905

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Be still, and know that I am God.

—Psalm 46:11


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Don’t move. If you do, you’ll burst into sweat.

This is when you know it’s hot. The slightest movement brings about spontaneous combustion.

God will have His way. If the cold wont get you to sit still in front of a fire, then the oppressive heat of summer will stop you in your tracks in the middle of an otherwise busy day.

That is until modern HVAC has its way.

So much progress. So much heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.

I wonder if we’d pay more attention to the Church calendar, more attention to prayer, more attention to God in general if we spent more time within His seasonal elements. I am fairly certain we’d spend a lot more time sitting still.

Yes, modern climate control may give us more time in many ways, but that certainly doesn’t imply that we spend that time well. For we are very weak, and most additional “freedom” most normally results in increased amounts of wasted, fruitless, and spiritually-empty activity.

Besides, voluntary sitting still is very different than forced stillness. Voluntary is certainly better—in terms of us using our freewill wisely, and in terms of us positioning ourselves to “know” God’s presence—but, on the other hand, when stillness is forced upon us, we actually might do it. We actually might stop, and we actually might be more concerned with “not moving” than just about anything else. That’s a funny consequence of truly compulsory conditions, when they come about through God’s perfectly ordained plan: The more we’re forced into something by factors greater and holier than ourselves, and the more we don’t resist but cooperate, the more we find ourselves desiring the consequences of the very conditions that were “forced upon us” in the first place.

When was the last time you had to sit still for any extended period of time in front of a fire in order to keep warm on a dangerously cold night, or sit extremely still in order to fend off the truly oppressive heat of a summer afternoon?

For that matter, forget the extreme cases, when was the last time you or I didn’t have a modern source of heating or cooling within a few steps on even moderately cool or warm days?

Most of us living within this culture and during this time are no longer very dependent upon “our sister Mother Earth” to force us into life changing ways. Yes, I know of course about the big storms and floods, the fires and earthquakes—the catastrophic natural events—but in terms of day-to-day living for the great majority of people in the Western world, daily climate is not something that cramps our modern, in-control-of-everything style. It is really quite ironic when we stop and think about it, for we hear so much about climate change, and yet most of us who may ponder that very question do so while comfortably residing within temperature-controlled homes, offices, and automobiles that make us almost oblivious to natural and seasonal weather changes.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we should collectively trash our heating or a/c units and move back into the pre-HVAC age. I enjoy my heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning as much as my Middle-Eastern and Central-American neighbors living next door.

It’s just that I was forced into thinking about this. You see, my daughter is off from school and busy playing and making the “noises” that accompany such joy, and my wife is currently a busy little bee, walking in and out of each room, cleaning, straitening, and unpacking the laundry. I had little choice but to leave the house to get a few undisturbed moments of quiet. So here I am behind an urban two-family home, sitting within a somewhat screened-in gazeebo on a blacktopped driveway, trying not to move.

I thank God for allowing me to sweat. For reminding me of just how much I cannot control. For reminding me that exterior stillness and interior peace, although connected, are not one and the same. I also thank Him for allowing me to forget for the time being just how sensitive my feet, especially the first few toes of my left foot, are to the cold.

And now that I think about it, now that I have begun to give thanks, I’m realizing that it’s really not that bad. It’s not that hot. It’s kind of nice in fact. And I definitely notice that it has kept my writing in check. The word count of this piece has most surely been stunted, and I am very, very certain that that is for the best. I think I’ll leave it here then and wrap it up. And afterward, I’ll spend some time doing just about nothing, allowing the heat to box me in and keep me comfortably quiet.

I must admit though, I feel a bit guilty, knowing that it won’t be too long before I walk back into a climate controlled, air-conditioned environment—that is once the mosquitos begin to bite (thank God for screens!).

But maybe that’s just the point.

God’s will has its way.

His seasons, His entire world, always speaks to us.

His Liturgy never ends.

The Liturgy of Seasons cannot be stopped.

 

Happy Monday of the 15th week in Ordinary Time!

(Year: C(II). Psalter: Week 3. Liturgical Color: White. Memorial: St. Benedict.)

(Monday, July 11, 2016.)

(Hot. Humid. Partial Sunshine. Very Slight Chance of Thunderstorm.)

(Sunset 8:28 PM. Moon: Waxing Crescent, Illumination: 45%.)

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—Howard Hain

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Friday Thoughts: Walled Garden (2)

(Please note: This is part 2 of a piece entitled “Walled Garden”. To read part 1, simply click here: Friday Thoughts: Walled Garden (1))


pissarro orchards at louveciennes 1872

Camille Pissarro, “Orchards at Louveciennes”, 1872

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And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.

—John 19:27


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On leaving the convent I came upon the friar I noticed on my way in. The little dog was no longer around. We approached each other as if we had met before. He was kind. He was middle-aged. He was simple. And then the strangest thing occurred. He took me by the arm, the way men stroll in Italy, arm-in-arm, during the evening passeggiata—the evening stroll.

But I had never met this man before.

Yes, it is certainly strange to have an unknown man approach you and link his arm in yours.

He led me toward a dirt path. We strolled. We spoke little. He didn’t speak English and my Italian was tiny. But it was nice. Peaceful. It didn’t feel strange. I only now use that word, for from a somewhat forced “objective” perspective, it seems that it had to be.

He was a man of God. And he saw I was too, before I had any idea God had undeservedly entrusted me with such a gift. The gift of loving God. The gift of wanting Him more than I could ever explain. The gift of being an outcast here in this world of time, a wanderer, a pilgrim, a crusading knight of Lady Poverty—of being—in yet again, some strange kind of way—a lady-in-waiting—patiently and painfully anticipating the exuberant arrival of the one and only eternal groom.


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He brought me to what appeared to be an old foundation. I understood from what few words we exchanged that this was the remains of an abandoned orphanage. And then we began to head back toward whence we came. I remember offering him some bread that I had in my bag, purchased that morning in the city of Assisi up above. He lightly touched his stomach with one hand and shook his head “no”—a kind, polite, gracious, and utterly grateful, “no-thank-you” kind of “no”.

When we arrived at the door of the convent I understood from his gestures that he was inviting me to see something inside. It was clearly something that I had not yet seen. I motioned “yes” and we entered. We climbed a staircase and walked down a hallway. We were in an area not open to the public. The walls revealed its age. And we approached a door. A wooden door. And he unlocked it with an old large skeleton key. He opened the door and motioned for me to go inside, quietly informing me that this is Saint Clare’s cell. I entered and he remained outside. He gently pulled the door closed.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I was safe. I knew I wasn’t locked in. I was pleasantly confused. I looked around. It was small. It was literally a cell. Enclosed. All stone. A low tight arched ceiling. Bright. Dark. Cozy. Warm. Beautiful.

A tabernacle. A womb. A virgin’s womb.


 

At the end of the somewhat rectangular shaped room was a small alter-like shelf. I knelt before it. I have not the slightest recollection of what I prayed.  Of what I thought. Of anything spiritually taking place. I was just there. And I remained a few minutes. And then I left. I opened the door and I was all alone. No friar. I closed the door behind me and made my way back down from where I had come.

It seemed as if nothing extraordinary had happened. It was all so normal. So everyday. Yet it was nothing of the sort. It was extraordinary. It was an encounter. I think. Perhaps.


 

I think of little Mary. Alone in her room. I think of a gentle breeze and the sight of a bowing angel.

“Hail, full of grace…”

What a name, what a title to be given!

Gabriel holding the key that opens the door.

The young, chosen, highly-favored virgin agrees to hear his message, to walk arm-in-arm with him, to accompany him to she knows not where. She agrees to accept God’s invitation.

The Holy Spirit comes upon her simple life, her simple way, her simple manner.

The power of the Most High overshadows her daily existence.

Our Father confirms her trusting posture, her grace-filled instinct to utter the purest of prayers:

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“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38)

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Jesus entered a private, off-limits room. He made His home there.

And He never left.


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“…when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret…”

—Matthew 6:6


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—Howard Hain

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Friday Thoughts: You Dirty Rat

The Boyarina Morozova, Vasilij Surikov, 1887, detail 2

Vasilij Surikov, “The Boyarynya Morozova”, 1887 (detail)

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I am starving to death by not preaching. I search the garbage bins and pick out of dumpsters, ever eying with hungry eyes trash thrown by the wayside.

I am so wonderfully fed by Christ!

Yet I thirst a thirst of love. I long for more painful encounters that heal me so. I am a lover of the beach who roams the Sahara. Below the height of the mounting sun, among the singing dunes, I bellow with them the universal hum.

The sand is all about me. An oasis resides within my heart. I am surrounded by mirages of men whom long ago have forgotten to start.

I starve to preach. To sing of our Lord. I starve to fly high with no might of my own. Tapping toes and rocking forth, slightly bending knees, ready to spring forth from well to well.

I love our God. I love Him so. I love Him and Him alone. He tells me to love others as myself. I love Him despite myself. I love Him in others, and others because of Him. I love for I have been brought low. I love for I have learned to soar high. He is my all. My everything. Of Him, and Him alone, do I sing.

I sing of socks, and of sneakers, of old clothes and new sandals, and of wedding rings. I sing of mice, and of men, I sing of the difference that resides only in the length of whiskers. I sing of dogs and of cats, and o yes, of rats—o those ugly creatures that challenge me so.

I ask myself, are they not created by God as well?

Isn’t that dirty filthy stinkin’ rat also beautiful and also real?

Does not God shine the sun and shower the rain on disturbing rats as well?

O, if I could only love rates, then I would truly sing! Mend this heart, this rock of mine, hardened by selfish sight and by wanting what isn’t mine. Yes, boil me down, so I may drown in what the residue of life leaves to those who truly suffer.

I sing to you, O Glorious Rat. Creature of God!

I sing to you that you too shall sing with me. I see that I no longer need to sing alone. Come, accept my embrace. I forgive you. Now perhaps I too may be forgiven.

I see and smell and hear the truth. You the rat, object of everyone’s scorn. You too were once so young, before you crawled into the bin, before you journeyed down the darkened tunnel—you too—little infant rat—were brought forth from the mother’s womb.

Come young, come old! Come from your abandoned buildings, and vacant storage yards, from old ball fields well over grown. Come one, come all!

The pious pied piper now plays a gospel tune. The garbage begins to gather, the desolation takes on an evening glow. The sand all about me recedes from the stormy cloud. It slowly begins to lay low.

The desert creeps up upon a vast body of water.

I pass between walls of a held back sea, my feet tread cross a red clay bottom.

You too, brother rat, are a gift from our mighty God above. You too were loved into existence by the Lord of all.

God of all who share residence upon the earth.

God of all who sigh and sing.

God of all who snort and smile.

God of all who bellow and breathe, both fresh and soiled city air alike.

Come, then, last call, leave your dens, leave your hobbies, leave you daily work behind. Leave you rats, friends of mine, leave the muck and sewers of this world, climb the hills, and charge the mountain, dip yourselves in Carmel air, for even you reflect the glory of Zion from a peak so high.

Come and join the birds who listened so intently, who still this day patiently hear lonely troubadours sing. Yes, join us, for there is always plenty of room, room for even you, object of everyone’s scorn.

Enough for even you, you dirty rat.

A sight for sore eyes to this poor lonely thirsty preacher.

For through you I give our magnificent God mighty humble joy-felt praise.

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—Howard Hain

Friday Thoughts: Walled Garden

Francis and Clare from the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon Franco Zeffirelli

Saint Francis and Saint Clare from the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”, (Franco Zeffirelli) (1972)

 

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A garden enclosed, my sister, my bride,
a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed!

—Song of Songs 4:12

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From memory it is not easy to recall. I do have a clear image, but if it is accurate that remains to be seen. Here we go.

It was downhill. A sloping path. As I approached the stone church, a few people wandered around out front. There was somewhat of a courtyard, well not a courtyard, more like a little wall hugging into existence a welcoming space. This wall was about bench height, made also of stone, and extended outward from the building. It created what I would normally call an out-front patio space, but in Italian terms, perhaps it would be called a terrazza, or maybe even be considered a piazza, or perhaps most accurately, a piazzetta. Then again, maybe it is just a patio to Italians too.

Well, sitting on this low wall was a friar. And running around the open area was a small brown dog with a shaggy little beige beard.

I entered the church. It was small, almost cave like. A curved ceiling. Dark. Old. There was the cross, a crucifix. Not the actual one that spoke to Saint Francis—no, that one was moved up into the Basilica of Saint Clare located in the central part of the still small but no-longer medieval town of Assisi.

The reproduction spoke to me.

I’m an early companion of Francis.
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I remained in the chapel for a while. I’m not sure if I was praying or not. I’m pretty sure I got on my knees. But from that day’s perspective, prayer was not known to me. So from that perspective, I wasn’t praying. But from today’s perspective, I most certainly was. For I was there. I was in Italy, in Assisi, in the Church of San Damiano. I was there intentionally. I was lost but I was found. I was looking, and I was obeying. Obeying what I didn’t know. I had no idea why, but I wanted to be there. And I felt something. It was heavy, literally. I remember feeling bent over. I remember thinking about all the prayer that must have taken place in that small space over the past thousand years. I remember thinking that all that collective belief must have an effect. It did. It does. It will. I was certain that I felt it. It bowed me down. It bent me over. And I remember liking it.

Faith is common.

I was a pilgrim and didn’t know it.
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I don’t remember much about the convent itself. I do remember walking from room to room, the communal rooms where Saint Clare and her companions, her biological mother and two sisters among them, ate and prayed and cared for their sick. I remember the small warm inner garden, with it’s old well. And the spot marked as the place where Clare liked best to sit. I’ve always loved internal courtyards. The thought of being outdoors and yet enclosed. Architecturally, it best represents the beauty of true solitude. Open. Yet safe. Free. Yet sheltered. Alone. Yet surrounded by those who believe the same.

In that sense, solitude—when it’s truly interior, truly spiritual—is like love: you can never get enough of it, and once you have it, once you truly live within it, you’re never again alone.

Solitude is love. And love is never solitary.
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Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.

—Isaiah 7:14

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—Howard Hain

Catherine of Siena, (1347-80)

St. Catherine if Siena is a doctor of the church and Italy’s patron saint along with St. Francis.

As the 24th child in a family of 25 children, Catherine of Siena was a saintly teacher and church reformer.  As a young girl, she clashed with her father, who worked dying wool, and her mother, a hardy determined housewife, after she told them she wasn’t going to get married, but was giving herself totally to God.

She cut her hair and began to fast and pray.  She joined a group of women who helped the poor in Siena, mostly widows associated with the Dominican order. They  were suspicious of the pious young girl who kept to herself and was at odds with her mother and father.

At 21 years old, Catherine was led to go beyond the mission of the women’s group and reach out further to the church and society.  Men and women, priests and laypeople, from Siena and its surroundings gathered around her. They cared for the poor– famine struck Siena in 1370 and a plague in 1374– but also they sought to reform the church and the society of their day.

At the time, Italian cities like Siena, Florence, Pisa and Padua were fighting among themselves as rival families clashed continuously over political power and economic advantages. In 1309 the popes fled the violence and factional riots in Rome for the safety of Avignon in France, where the papacy remained for almost 70 years. They call it “the Babylonian Captivity.”

Catherine and her companions pleaded with the feuding Italian cities for peace and urged the popes to return to Rome to exercise their mission as bishops of the city where Peter and Paul once led the Christian church. Catherine cajoled, warned and scolded the absent popes to do their duty as shepherds of their sheep and get back to where they belonged.

Without any formal education, Catherine learned to read and write only later in life, which made her an unlikely public figure. She was also a woman teaching and preaching– unusual for that day : “Being a woman, I need not tell you, puts many obstacles in my way. The world has no use for women in a work such as that and propriety forbids a woman to mix so freely with men.” (Letter) Despite those obstacles, Catherine traveled to the warring cities of Italy urging peace and to Avignon to plead with the pope.

Catherine had a deep experience of God in prayer, as the “Dialogue,” her mystical exchange with God, attests. God spoke with her and she shared those words, drawing others to respond and join her in her mission of peace-making and reform.

Jesus was her “Gentle Truth,” her guide and strength. “This is a sign that you trust in me and not in yourself: that you have no cowardly fear. Those who trust in themselves are afraid of their own shadow; they think heaven and earth are letting  them down. Fear and a twisted trust in their own small wisdom makes them pitifully concerned about getting and holding on to everything on earth and throwing away everything spiritual…The only ones afraid are those who think they are alone…They are afraid of every little thing because they are alone–without me.” (Dialogue)

As a lay-woman in the church, she was not afraid to speak to power, once correcting a bishop for “ordaining little boys instead of mature men… idiots who can scarcely read and say the prayers.  They consider it beneath them to visit the poor, they stand by and let people die of hunger.”

Tell the truth, God told her. Tell the truth because love impels you. “You must love others with the same love with which I love you. But you cannot repay my love. Love other people, loving them without being loved by them. Love them without concern for spiritual and material gain, but only for the glory of my name, because I love them.” ( Dialogue )  Loving God inevitably means loving others.

She died in Rome in 1378 and is buried there in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Her heart is in Siena.

St. Paul Outside the Walls

 Paul the Apostle is buried in the Church of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. His sarcophagus lies under the church’s main altar. Until 2008, when archeologists uncovered it, it was concealed underground in the same spot.

After their execution in the mid 60s, Peter was buried on the Vatican Hill and Paul was buried along the Via Ostia. Churches honoring the two apostles were built in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine over their graves. Constantine didn’t initiate devotion to the apostles, though. Christians from Rome and elsewhere came in great numbers from earliest times to these places to honor these great heroes.

Here’s a video of the church:

St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome

A statue of St. Paul welcomes us outside the church’s entrance. He’s an old man, clothed in a heavy traveler’s cloak, bent and tired from years on the road. Yet, the apostle holds a sword firmly in hand, not a military sword, but a symbol of a faith that won hearts and banished the powers of darkness. He has “fought the good fight” and “kept the faith,” and here in Rome his earthly journey ended. Pictures on the church doors recall Paul’s final hours, when he died decapitated by an executioner’s sword not far from this spot.

Lifting our eyes to the façade of the church, we see his dramatic journey in outline, from Jerusalem to Rome, as Paul carried the gospel of Jesus Christ announced beforehand by prophets of the Old Testament.  A more detailed description of his mission appears in the paintings around the church walls inside, from his conversion on the way to Damascus, to his death here in the capitol of the Roman world.

If we look higher before we go in, Paul appears on the church’s façade in the light of glory, his traveling days done. With Peter, a fellow disciple, he sits at the feet of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord who taught him so well. “Who are you, Lord?” Paul once cried, thrown to the ground. Now he sees Jesus face to face.

This same scene of glory is repeated within the church itself where columns in procession lead our eyes to a triumphal arch defining the apostle’s grave below and the altar above it. On the dome of the apse, Jesus sits in triumph, surrounded by Paul and his companion apostles and evangelists. “Come, blessed of my father, receive the kingdom prepared for you,” Jesus proclaims in the book of life he holds up to them.

Today,  we can see the apostle’s tomb, recently uncovered by archeologists, under the main altar.

Outside the Walls

The description “Outside the Walls” is a reminder that this church, now in a crowded city suburb, was once outside Rome’s city walls on a desolate stretch of the Via Ostia, part of a little cemetery where the apostle was first buried. As they did over St.Peter’s grave, early Christians built a modest memorial immediately after Paul’s death to mark his grave; then in the early 4th century the Emperor Constantine erected a small church facing the Via Ostia honoring the apostle.

It did not end there, however. Later that same century, a larger church replaced the small church, as large as that of St.Peter on the Vatican. Why build an immense building like this in an out-of-the-way place, we may ask? Was it devotion or Christian pride?

Perhaps. Yet, some speculate other reasons were behind it. In the late 4th century, hordes of “barbarians” were pouring through the frontiers of the empire, and the Romans–most likely Christians among them–  saw the newcomers as pesky strangers: violent, crude and uncultured. The latin word they used for them, “barbari,” dismisses them as little less than savages, unwelcome intruders to an orderly Roman world.

St. Paul once scolded the proud Corinthians for looking down on others and forgetting how God raised them up from nothing by his grace. “The door to faith has opened to the nations,” he said; God welcomes all, no matter who they are. Wouldn’t God welcome these new immigrants?

Did the new church call Roman Christians to open their hearts to these new gentiles as the apostles Peter and Paul had done before? Early popes like Leo the Great and Gregory the Great promoted this new church. Gregory not only welcomed newcomers to the Italian peninsula but inspired by Paul reached out to peoples beyond the borders of the empire, to the misty shores of England and the dark forests of Northern Europe.

To be catholic the church had to reach out to the world.

Peter and Paul complement each other. Paul, a complex intellectual, forged beyond the boundaries of Judaism to address the whole world.  Peter, the Galilean fisherman, was a cautious captain for the ship of the church. Their gifts are different, but we gain from both of them. Paul’s sword points to an unknown future and tells us not to be afraid to embrace it. Peter, holding firmly the keys given him by Jesus, calls us to stay close to the Good Shepherd, whose wisdom and love supports us.

The Church treasures their different gifts.

Websites:

http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/index_en.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/061211-saint-paul.html