Thou Shalt Speaketh Up-to-Date(th)


How I Learned to Relax and Love Archaic Language

 (Part I)

 A word, like a person, lives and dies. We cannot fight neologisms. Time marches on and languages rise and fall. Even though we might quietly shudder at the thought of “googling” information and living a “green” lifestyle, it displays a lack of gentlemanly noblesse oblige to put up too much of a fuss. Friends, let us not stand athwart the progress of history and impose a false conservatism on a living, breathing language. Words change definition, old words fall out of use, new ones are created, and we must make our peace.

Princess Bride

However, one must absolutely draw the line somewhere. I absolutely will not “hack” my life for convenient living, or believe that a “feminist” is a pop star who dances on a stage in her underpants while wheezing out a vocal. And don’t even get me started on the way that errors eventually become the norm, such as “chomping at the bit” and “irregardless.” I also hate how words like “terrible” and “awesome” have entirely changed meaning (but I admit that I am venturing into curmudgeon territory here).

Language changes, yes, and sometimes that is a bad development. Not all change can be automatically ascribed to a positive evolution, sometimes it is Darwin warning us our culture has wandered into a cul-de-sac and we need to put the car in reverse and step on the gas.

Darwin Award

Words, because they are alive, stretch their legs and take a walk out into the ether, suspended somewhere between speaker and listener. The speaker may intend one meaning and the listener have understood another. The word has taken on a sign value not entirely in our control anymore. (which is why silence is the wisdom of the Fox). This holds true, in fact, for all art. I am not such a good philosopher that I would want to make any specific claims for meaning and symbol and just how much is subjective and how much is objective, but hopefully we can all agree that language, while retaining a healthy level of objective meaning, is often deceptively complex. What we think we communicate is not always the case.

This difficulty becomes the absolute joy of a poet, for language offers infinite possibilities and shades of meaning. A poem, Aristotle reminds us, is the language of possibility. It is about what might be and what ought to be. If facts and specificities are employed at all, they are always in service of the whole, which exists beyond individual instances. The ambiguity of words allows the poet to refer to the mysterious reality that intertwines with ours and yet is well beyond it. Gerard Manley Hopkins defines the problem as how one is to use words to make present The Word. He solves the problem by essentially breaking language down to a song of related words that inform each other by their proximity. For instance, in “Pied Beauty” he writes:

Glory be to God for dappled things

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.

Language, for Hopkins, has become a dance of individual words that are related, rhyming, speeding past the reader and dazzling so that the mind is taken away from any specific actuality to which they refer and directed towards the universal, the God who fathers-forth all of creation. In the same way a son is a living icon of his father, so too are all things icons of the Creator God. Hopkins has as his goal a beauty of language that will transport us to the inner heart of all things. It is here that we see the resemblance most clearly.

Poetically, there is another way of accomplishing the same goal, through the use of archaism. This is the intentional deployment of words that have fallen out of regular use or whose meanings have changed drastically over the years and yet the poet refers to the original use, often situating them in a new context. A master of this art is TS Eliot. His Four Quartets are about the cyclical, changing nature of life, how we drill down through the flux of nature and into the still place at the center, from the part to the whole. He talks about words in the same manner as Hopkins; “Words…reach ,/into the silence.” And, “Words strain/Crack and sometimes break…/decay with imprecision.” It is in the space beyond the words (although somehow mediated by those very words) that we encounter the unchangeable Divine.

Here is the Heraclitean flow as described in the Quartets:

 In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Eliot comes back to the cyclical nature of time again and again, making the form follow the theme and forcing language to enter into mortal combat with itself through contradiction. Only after we break through the white noise of words do we find the stillness on the other side,

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered.

Eliot is a great appropriator of the writing of other poets, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that mimics his deconstruction of language. For instance, he quotes Spenser’s “Epithalamion”

 In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie –

A dignified and commodious sacrament.

Two and two, necessary conjunction,

That is some intense, Elizabethan archaism. What is its purpose in what we would consider a modern poem? Well, it actually introduces into the overall vocabulary itself a contradiction. It is as if there are two dictionaries fighting each other. This is a more fundamental way to accomplish what is done by the individual word pairings such as, “destroyed/restored, rise/fall, extended/removed, flesh/fleshless, past/future.” There is a juxtaposition of modern with ancient, showing that language itself is not exempt from the constant flux of nature; words are not The Word.

Eliot shows the great potential of archaic language when incorporated into poetry by a skilled writer and he uses it in such a way that not only do the individual words contradict but the entire poem itself is a contradiction. The archaic words themselves still retain their meaning (they aren’t turned into neologisms), so they convey the theme both in the rediscovery of their original meaning and by the way they redefine the formal structure of the poem. This works so well precisely because these words have detailed definitions, and although they have fallen out of use, they retain objective meaning. Old words might be dead, but in the hands of a gifted poet there is always the possibility of resurrection. We would be mistaken to dismiss their use so easily in favor of purely contemporary vocabulary.

On a more simple level, archaism will grab the reader’s attention. I admit that this may appear gimmicky when done poorly, but consider the case of the new English translation for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Archaism has been introduced into the very sentence structure as all of the collects have come to both more accurately reflect the ancient Latin rhythms as dependent clauses pile up upon each other as well as to more closely align with older English formulations of those same collects. By doing so, the prayers become more expressive of the poetic intent of the Mass. It would make sense that the Mass would proceed in a poetic manner, after all, it is the very act of a people who are seeking the God beyond them. We are the part seeking the whole.

An unfamiliar word with the whiff of antiquity about it creates mystery for the reader to solve. The Mass is not “contemporary” (a hilariously archaic word in its own right) or “Pope Benedict at Consecrationmodern” (again, funny). It is not an everyday newspaper article that will be out of date the next day. It is a timeless artifact that requires a close reading. It is an adventure! The low-level grumbling in response to the new translation was enough to put the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years to shame. Particularly odious to the complainers was the change in the Nicene Creed, which went from “one in being” to “consubstantial.” What old-fashioned nonsense is this, proponents of modern language cried! This new word, the complaint goes, is archaic. It has lost its meaning. It is technical. No one knows the definition and it is not user-friendly. What such a complaint overlooks, though, is that the word has the great virtue of being incredibly precise. It emerges from the crucible of a philosophical discussion with deep roots. This one little word has worlds of meaning packed into it. It brings us back to ancient Nicaea and Plato’s Ladder of Being and Santa angrily punching the heretic Arius in the face. This is a word that is experienced in vibrant color, it smells of incense, whereas in the service of relatability and ease of understanding, the previous phrase was gray and boring. Worse than that, the “modern” translation was quickly falling out of fashion. The now more faithfully rendered translation, archaism and all, is timeless.

(I have a lot more to say and will post more on archaism soon. Hopefully this interests others as much as it interests me! Teaser: Tolkien, the television show Deadwood, and the original King James Bible)

Pattern Recognition

Late last year, I went on a retreat. A copy of Ronald Knox’s New Testament translation accompanied me. I’d heard that Monsignor Knox had succeeded particularly well at rendering Saint Paul’s labyrinthine syntax into clear English. Never having quite followed the various threads of inspired argument through more than five or six chapters of Pauline prepositional phrases and dependent clauses at a single sitting, I was eager to see if Knox could make the longer epistles more intelligible to me than his predecessors (Douay-Rheims-Challoner; King James; etc.) and successors (New American Bible; Revised Standard Version; etc.) had done. The central project of my retreat would be to study Knox’s version of Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans as a single piece of literature, reading all sixteen chapters of that longest epistle in order and in as few sittings as possible.

Having done it, I can recommend it: Knox’s Paul is lucid indeed–lucid enough to read with pleasure for sixteen-chapter stretches; lucid enough to make the letter read like an actual letter, addressed to you and me, rather than like a sentence-diagramming exercise. So the project succeeded in its immediate object. As for how well it succeeded in its higher objects of bringing forth the fruits-by-which-you-shall-know-the-reader, and aiding the salvation of (one or more) souls—well, it’s a little early to say. But Monsignor Knox has done his share. His work is good fruit in itself, whatever may sprout from the seed.

There’s another priest who also deserves credit for fixing one of Paul’s lessons in my memory—an architect. I mentioned that my reading of Romans took place during a retreat. The venue was Prince of Peace Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Oceanside, California. As the photos on the Prince of Peace website suggest, the largest part of the monastery’s physical plant dates to the 1980s. Something about the buildings’ hard-edged modernism (domeless, archless, vaultless; even the columns are square, not circular, in cross-section) combines with the SoCal beach-ridge setting to give Prince of Peace a Star Trek look—specifically, a Star Trek: The Next Generation look.[1] But although the architectural style of Prince of Peace lacks any of the curves necessary to connect it to historic monastic architecture (whether of a round-arch or a pointed-arch variety), and although this deliberate ahistoricism is a fault, still, the buildings have their own virtue.

My guestroom at Prince of Peace Abbey.

My guestroom at Prince of Peace Abbey.

They are the designs of the Mexican Benedictine priest Gabriel Chávez de la Mora. Before my retreat, I had never heard of him; having looked up photos of his other works since my visit to Prince of Peace, I find them also too deliberately ahistorical. But even if the buildings of Prince of Peace show too little deference to tradition, they still show, and encourage, reverence toward God.

The walls and columns consist mostly of cubic, unpainted gray blocks, so that you pray, work, eat, and sleep surrounded by grids. After spending 26 hours inside those grids, I did not feel oppressed by Father Gabriel’s rectilinear monomania, but, rather, focused by the consistency of his design. The regularity of all those little squares-and-squares-and-squares complemented the regularity of the daily liturgical cycle—the one marking off space at set intervals, the other marking off time, both of them abstracting from the subtler order of nature. When the tower bell sounded, the horizontal edges of all the squares along the halls and corridors conducted the eye, the mind, and the rest of the self along an invisible z-axis toward the abbey church. And the squares’ vertical edges continued implicitly, invisibly, infinitely into the sky above and the earth below.

Nor did Father Gabriel’s design succeed only on the basis of its orderliness (so comforting to us animals shaped by the dangerous unpredictability of a fallen world) and its pure God-of-the-philosophers abstraction. It also, despite its excessive ahistoricism, called to mind concrete historical realities of our redemption. In the first place, Father Gabriel designed the abbey church’s tabernacle as a modernistic Ark of the Covenant, built from gold cubes of approximately the same dimensions as the monastery’s ubiquitous gray blocks. To see the blocks anywhere in the monastery was to remember the tabernacle in the church. In the second place, the regularity of the walls was relieved here and there by the raising of five blocks—one “middle” block and the four blocks sharing its edges—into a Greek cross. Thus, not only did one imagine the horizontal lines extending toward infinite horizons, and the vertical lines extending toward infinite heights and depths; one also grew to see crosses, large and small, in all the intersections.

Prince of Peace - squares

And that is where Father Gabriel Chávez de la Mora conspired unwittingly with Monsignor Ronald Knox and Saint Paul of Tarsus to fix one lesson in my head—and, I hope, in my heart. I was sitting in a colonnade, with my back against one of Father Gabriel’s cross-gridded walls, facing another grid, and flanked by two more, when I read Monsignor Knox’s translation of Romans 6:3-5 (emphasis added):

You know well enough that we who were taken up into Christ by baptism have been taken up, all of us, into his death. In our baptism, we have been buried with him, died like him, that so, just as Christ was raised up by his Father’s power from the dead, we too might live and move in a new kind of existence. We have to be closely fitted into the pattern of his resurrection, as we have been into the pattern of his death [. . .].

[1] A 24th-century Starfleet uniform would look at least as natural in those surroundings as a 21st-century Benedictine habit. More than once, I felt a temptation to pull out my smartphone—that proto-tricorder—and scan the colonnades for life-forms. By God’s grace, I managed to resist.

Gethsemane Blues

This is a guest post by Casey Sharp.

“Please, no explanations inside the Church,” reads the poorly worded sign outside of the Basilica of Agony in Jerusalem. Located at the possible site of the Garden of Gethsemane and Christ’s final agonizing meditation before he submitted himself to die- the Basilica of Agony is not a place for explanations. The Italian speaking Franciscans living in the Church only wanted to urge the noisy tour groups to refrain from disrupting the serenity of a holy place by keeping their lectures on its history outside the sacred space, but the Friars unknowingly made a statement that could not be more appropriate for the Garden of Gethsemane.

According to tradition God wrestled with Himself in this place. God has a thing for wrestling- as with Jacob when he was renamed “Israel,” which means, “He wrestles with God.” According to the Gospels an Infinite Being condemned Himself to die. That makes no sense. There are no explanations. Why would we even include such a theologically contradictory story in our Bibles? When Pope John Paul II visited Auschwitz he called it “the Gethsemane of the modern world.” Like in the Gospel story, innocents had their final meditation before being condemned to an unjust death. Each murder of the genocide left behind a question about the possibility of continuing to believe in God. It is quite a glaring question mark. For many after the Holocaust, it was not possible to believe any more. As Elie Wiesel says of the Holocaust victims in their finals days- they became immortal. You see it in their faces in all the old photographs. Like Christ- they understood something infinite and terrifying in that final agony before they were condemned.

We have asked this same question forever- The Problem of Evil might be the most persistent theological question, and possibly the most important too. CS Lewis and others try to explain it away by looking to free will. They say God must allow us to do terrible things, but try telling that to mothers whose children died in the Holocaust. Tell their mothers that the free choice of Nazis is more important than the lives and continued free will that their children might have enjoyed if they were allowed to live. Sometimes it is unloving and therefore heretical to be too orthodox in your explanations. Then we get into natural evils- hurricanes, diseases, floods, ect.- and the list of what a loving God allows continues to amplify the awful question. 

Though I appreciate CS Lewis’s view, it leaves us wanting, but CS Lewis wrote about evil in that way earlier in his career. Later in his life, after the death of his beloved wife, he adds a new element to the idea of evil in the world saying, “Sometimes it is hard not to say, ‘God forgive God.” Sometimes it is hard to say so much. But if our faith is true, He didn’t. He crucified Him.” All evil in the world exists under the watchful gaze of a loving God. Theists cannot escape this. The Creator knew what He created and permitted in his creation. Even Satan is God’s Satan at the end of the day. Positing an evil force in the universe only delays the question- it does not solve it. This is why the story of Gethsemane is necessary even though it offers no real explanations. Christ dies for OUR sins, but He also dies for the fact that HE allowed us to sin. He totally and completely reconciles Himself to everything He created and allowed, and reconciles Himself in the most agonizing way imaginable because only that would do. Though it makes no sense, we can say we affirm a God who relates to all unjust suffering in the most intimate way possible. 

The nexus of this question is found in Gethsemane, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or the site of every school shooting. Turn on the news, and you visit Gethsemane. Inside the Basilica of Agony you will find traditional Byzantine Christian art, “the rock” where Jesus wept (according to traditions), and what you would generally expect in a Christian Holy site- except for one motif in the Church that goes to the very heart of Christian Existentialism. Above the beautiful altar and “the rock” where Jesus wept, you will NOT find a giant imposing crucifix like you see in most Catholic Churches and certainly most Christian holy sites. Instead of a crucifix, you see a mosaic of the scene in Gethsemane, and if you sit there at dawn in silence looking at the scene you might ask God about His goodness, and Jesus is asking the same question with you. You see no imposing figure of Jesus above the altar. Instead, you see a small and lonely figure collapsed on a rock surrounded by a moonless void of a sky. Far off to the right you see the apostles asleep, unwilling and unable to help Jesus carry his question. Way up in the top of the sky is an angel, but he is too far away to offer any consolation to Jesus. The angel is only a vague reminder of hope- all but lost in this scene. The Franciscans of the Basilica are right- you will find no explanations here.

After mass at dawn one morning the Friars allowed me stay in the Basilica for an hour before it opened up for tourists. Jerusalem was still sleeping like the Apostles, and I sat there in silence as the faintest light began to creep in the blue to purple colored stained glass, and I could hear birds outside in the Church’s olive tree garden (they call it the Mount of Olives for a reason). I stared at the lonely Jesus collapsed on his rock, and I walked up to the stone before the altar and put my hand on it- the only pilgrim in the entire holy site, which is a very rare occurrence in Jerusalem. Personally, I could not care less if this stone is not the ACTUAL stone where Jesus wept. The fact that pilgrims have come here and prayed, and wept, and remembered this story for nearly 2,000 years in this exact spot is enough for me. Their prayers and tears have consecrated the place. I stared up at Jesus and the unhelpful but hopeful angel far above Him. No explanations came, but maybe something more important. I realized I could only love a God who is willing to crucify Himself. I can’t worship a detached God who tells Holocaust victims that what is horrific has a purpose in the long run. I might theoretically acknowledge that idea, but I’ll never really be able to believe it. Luckily, I don’t have to theorize away all the suffering in the world. In fact, that would be unChristian of me. Instead I can look to Gethsemane. Without explaining the presence of evil, I sit inside the questions and the contradictions with my God. I am in good company. 

I left the Basilica as the first tourists where beginning to enter- mostly adhering to the poorly (or appropriately) worded sign asking them to keep a respectful silence in the Church. Outside the church faces the Kidron Valley leading up to the Temple Mount, which is the physical symbol of all the hopefulness and eventual joy that is absent in Gethsemane. I do not know how to connect the Basilica of Agony and all its lonesomeness to the Temple Mount and all of its hopefulness, but like the “poorly worded” sign, there is a lesson and a paradox in the fact that a little valley separates the two. I may never be able to bridge that valley with my limited understanding, but as I look up the hill to the Temple as Jesus might have on that agonizing night, I like to think I find something better than an explanation. I find my God. 

Casey Sharp is one of the founders of the Society for Humanitarian Archaeological Research and Exploration, or SHARE, a nonprofit that uses archaeology as a vehicle not only to unearth treasures, but also to promote dialogue among young people from Israel and Palestine. Sharp is currently living in Israel, working on a master’s in archeology from the University of Haifa, near the Lebanon border.

Why I am (not) Charlie

I am not Charlie because, even though millions of supporters have taken to the blogosphere (and, occasionally, to the streets) and’ve begun using the catchphrase Je suis Charlie/I am Charlie to express their solidarity with the victims of the shooting that took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo last week,* there’s still a lot that makes me uncomfortable about using those loaded words.

I am not Charlie because saying “I am Charlie” kinda not only sweeps the ridiculously complicated elements leading to the shootings under the proverbial rug, but it frames everything in a dangerously simplistic dichotomy of West-vs-Middle-East or free-speech-vs-oppression or European-social-systems-vs-struggling-minorities or liberals-vs-fanatics or whatever shape your weekly slice of us-vs-them takes. I am not Charlie because, in addition to publishing pictures of the Prophet, the magazine has regularly shovelled layers of uncritical shat at social groups and people they obviously haven’t taken the time to understand.** I am also not Charlie because, incidentally, I’m not a magazine named Charlie Hedbo and French is not my forte.

I am not Charlie because I did not employ workers who are now dead *** and more who are wounded.**** I am not Charlie because attacks on my person and whatever staff I have didn’t overshadow the four people who died at a nearbyish grocery store. I am not Charlie because nobody, especially four additional people in Zinder, Niger, happened to die for my latest issue this week.

I am not Charlie because I’d kinda like for people to give my religious beliefs a serious investigation before dismissing them***** and wonder if the God I try to worship demands that desire extend to try to understand a religious tradition that’s not my own – that, and I wonder if it might be humanizing/helpful/worthwhile to try respecting the dignity of a love people have for a historical figure that’s as deep or deeper than the love I try (and fail) to have for a carpenter from Galilee.

I am not Charlie because I’m undecided about where I stand between the fact that freedom of expression is something ridiculously vital and the fact that responsibilities come with each/every freedom. I can’t quite say if I’m Charlie or not because I dunno whether the fact that most of the post-Jan-7th twitter-sphere seemed to forget the mag’s constant stream of ridiculous vitriol is a bizarrely touching act of mercy or terrible lapse of intellectual integrity.******(*******)

I am not Charlie because I don’t stand (intellectually) with people who say #iamcharlie while having issues when other people use that self-same freedom of speech to talk about abortion or alternative marriages or Holocaust denial or dead Palestinian children or ISIL precepts or the Ku Klux Klan – either freedom of speech means freedom of speech for everyone (especially the apparently disgusting, backwards or generally dangerous) or you’re not really all that interested in it.

I am not Charlie because displays of solidarity disturb me when they demand so little of the people displaying them, especially when those people conveniently forget the fact that several people die in terrorist attacks every week – apparently they don’t deserve rallies of over two million people.

I am not Charlie because it wasn’t my blood on the ground on January 7th, 2015. I am not Charlie because I don’t draw pornographic images of the Trinity. I am not Charlie because I myself don’t know to what extent I’ll defend freedom of expression. I am not Charlie because I hope, one day, to be able to say something of substance about Islam. I’m not Charlie because I can’t draw very well.

I am not Charlie because I am willing to compromise. I am not Charlie because that desire to compromise extends to folks labelled “terrorist” or “fanatic.” I am not Charlie because my values have never given me cause to run for my life. I am not Charlie because I’ve never died for what I believe in.

I am not Charlie because I wasn’t stupid enough to publish something under threat.

I am not Charlie because I am not brave enough.




*The magazine was satirical and published some pretty offensive stuff in general, and was one of the few publications that didn’t back down from printing pictures of Muhammad. Which, according to some interpretations of Islamic precepts, is a rather large no-no occasionally accompanied by death sentence.

**Not that I take the time to be properly informed. Nope. Guilty there. I don’t even know if it is possible for most people to be as informed as we ought/beg them to be.

***Frédéric Boisseau
Georges Wolinski
Franck Brinsolaro
Elsa Cayat
Stéphane Charbonnier
Philippe Honoré
Bernard Verlhac
Jean Cabut
Michel Renaud
Mustapha Ourrad
Bernard Maris
Ahmed Merabet, a police officer killed at the scene

****Simon Fieschi
Philippe Lan
Fabrice Nicolino
Laurent Sourisseau
Various policemen

*****While I’ve never read the magazine itself and so don’t know how substantial the articles are, the cover images at times have been beyond gratuitous.

******I mean that genuinely – I’m disturbed but actually kinda moved too.

*******Although, when I think about it, all the best mercies are usually a lapse in something.



Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

The Echo of Silent e

AnneOnce upon a time, there was a little girl named Karen who met a little girl named Anne. Both of us were eleven years old, or somewhere thereabouts. I lived in the United States in the late twentieth century, while Anne lived almost a century earlier, in Canada, in a village called Avonlea, in a house called Green Gables. This was no impediment to our becoming friends; we agreed there was excellent scope for imagination in having a friend from another time and place. Even when we bumped against annoying barriers set up by adult society (Anne was a staunch Anglo-Protestant whose grown-ups looked down on French Catholics, while I happen to be descended from quite a lot of Canadian French Catholics) we were too obviously kindred spirits to let such nonsense come between us. Because, you see, my middle name just happens to be Anne spelled with an e, and long before I met Anne Shirley, she and I had reached identical conclusions about the importance of that final silent letter. So much more distinguished than plain old A-n-n. Can you hear it, how that little e crowns the silence with its song?

At the age of eleven (or somewhere thereabouts), I had already discovered how few people can hear that silent e. Until I met Anne Shirley, in fact, I thought I was the only one. I also thought I was the world’s only eleven-year-old who wrote stories for fun. Certainly, no one else at my school had brought unassigned work into the second grade and pleaded with the teacher to read it aloud. No one else had tried to convince our fourth grade class to perform an original play for the other fourth grade class. No one else, when their friends came over to play, said, “Let’s write!”

But Anne did.

She was shier about wanting her work read than I was, but even braver about creating stories to enact. She got into a great deal more trouble for the sake of dramatic realism than I ever did, though it was fortunate Baton Rouge had none of Avonlea’s idyllic settings, or I would have found my way into quite a few “scrapes” she had inspired. Anne proved to me that there were, in fact, kindred spirits in the world, that imagination really was as powerful as I had always suspected. Anne of Green Gables assured me in a way no one else ever had that I was not alone.

Anne grew up faster than I did; that’s what happens when two friends are born almost a century apart. This proved to be a blessing, though, because watching her mature from an awkward daydreamer into a graceful, scholarly young woman gave me hope. I never believed I would achieve even half of Anne’s ability to captivate new friends, which might be why I never did. But I watched her develop virtues like kindness, generosity, the ability to forgive–all stemming from the core of childlike wonder that she never lost–and I took the lesson to heart. My catalogue of sins is longer than Anne Shirley’s, but whatever virtues I possess, I owe in some small part to her example.

Anne grew up faster than I did; but eventually, I passed her up. The girl who had been a playmate, then a role model, became a tether to a part of myself the world often tries to crush. That childlike core of wonder–mine is cracked and splintered. There are several layers of superglue holding it in place. But it is not shattered and swept away, in part because Anne is always with me to help me collect the pieces. There is more than nostalgia left for me in her yellowed pages. I am there, a girl of wind and starlight with flowers in my hair.

Common sense would say that, for a friend to love you, she must actually exist. She must have a pulse, and breathe real air, and look at you with real eyes. Anne and I know better. We know that sharing a story is enough. We know our friendship is only possible because she was imagined, and because Someone also imagined me. We know that love lives in the unheard echo of a tiny, silent e.

Looking for Jesus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

As the City of Philadelphia readies itself for the World Meeting of Families and the visit of Pope Francis in September 2015, I thought I’d tell you about some of the fun things I like to do in this city. While I’m not a native Philadelphian, I’ve lived in the suburbs for more than a decade and have tried to learn as much about the city as I can. Of course, what I like is what interests me–there’s much more to do beyond just what I find interesting. But perhaps you might find this info useful, for your next visit to the City of Brotherly Love!


Recently, I took a friend to the the Philadelphia Museum of Art, probably most famous outside of Philadelphia for the one piece of “art” on the outside: the Rocky Statue. Everyone who comes to Philly has to pose in front of this statue. It’s a thing. (Oddly enough, I don’t have a photo of it. Here’s a link to its official website!)

Inside is a lot of art, and I’m not going to tell you about all of it. You can check out their website for more info on their collections etc. The amount of time you spend in a museum depends on how interesting you find its exhibits and pieces. There is plenty in this museum that caught my eye and plenty that didn’t, but I definitely think it’s worth a visit.

Over the years, as my tastes have solidified, I’ve found that I spend much less time in museums because I know what I like and I know what I don’t care about, and I don’t waste time. At this stage in my life, when I’ve been to many of the world’s famous museums, I find that my habits are this: I look at the “famous” paintings that I’ve studied–the Mona Lisa, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (think Ferris Bueller), Liberty Leading the People, and La Guernica. Then, I am drawn to those works of art that either call to me because they are simply gorgeous, or to works of sacred art. What can I say: I know what I like.

On this visit, these are some of the paintings that caught my eye:

"Portrait of A Roman Lady (La Nanna)" by Sir Frederic Leighton

“Portrait of A Roman Lady (La Nanna)” by Sir Frederic Leighton

I am a big fan of the Pre-Raphaelites. I love their use of color, I love how idealized, yet realistic their subjects look, and I just think most things they paint is gorgeous. This painting of Anna Risi, called Nonna, is just one of many Lord Leighton painted of his muse (and lover). I think she was beautiful.

"A Reading from Homer" by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

“A Reading from Homer” by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

I love Alma-Tadema’s work, but his subjects are always lounging around. It makes me wonder if her just hung out with lazy people…

"The Moorish Chief: by Eduard Charlemont

“The Moorish Chief: by Eduard Charlemont

This painting of a Moorish Chief is very big–almost 5 feet tall! It’s beautiful in person.

Visiting a museum, is always a fun place to laugh. There’s always something that just seems less pretty and more funny. This painting made me want to run out of the room.

Léon Frédéric's "The Source of Life"

Léon Frédéric’s “The Source of Life”

Those are some very long torsos.

Then there’s the art that makes you want to just cry, in a good way.

"Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels" by Carlo Crivelli

“Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels” by Carlo Crivelli

When I first saw this, I thought, “Goodness, those angels are ugly!” But the more I stared at it, the more I thought, “I think I’d be ugly crying if I were them, too…” Now I can’t look at it too long without breaking into tears. The pain of those angels just hits you right in the gut.

"The Annunciation" by Henry Ossawa Tanner

“The Annunciation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

This is one of the prettier depictions of the Annunciation that I’ve seen. And the room in which the painting is placed is gorgeous!


I love how realistic this painting is. Mary looks young. She looks a little afraid but not like she’s trying to hide (as in Rosetti’s “Ecce Ancilla Domini!”) or angry (as in Simone Martini and Lippo Menni’s “Annunciation”).

Detail of Henry Ossawa Tanner's "The Annunciation"

Detail of Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation”

She’s humble, curious, interested. And I love how the angel is more light than form. Because, really, who knows what an angel looks like, anyway?

In this same, beautiful room, is the very large painting by Philadelphia’s pride and joy, Thomas Eakins.

"The Agnew Clinic" by Thomas Eakins

“The Agnew Clinic” by Thomas Eakins

Detail of "The Agnew Clinic" by Thomas Eakins

Detail of “The Agnew Clinic” by Thomas Eakins

The museum has a lot of Eakin’s work, but this is his largest piece. It features a partial mastectomy taking place in a large amphitheater. Eakins was famous for his scientific realism, and he really made a study of the human body. While I didn’t see it during my visit, his painting of the crucifixion is really amazing.

Here is a little slideshow of some of the other sacred art that I found to be very pretty.

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Other beautiful sacred art that I didn’t see, but which is on the museum’s website is “The Crucifixion”, “Christ Bearing the Cross” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple” by Leonard Bramer, and another by Heinrich Jansen, “Christ on the Sea of Galilee” by Ferdinand-Victor-Eugène Delacroix, “Christ Crucified on the Sacred Heart”, Artist unknown, and “Christ Performing Miracles” by Lucien Simon.

Then there’s the “art” that makes you want to cry, in a bad way.


Someone actually paid a lot of money for this.

What is this?! And how much did it cost the Philadelphia taxpayers?


But that nonsense was at least replaced in my memory by this gorgeous room, reminiscent of New York City’s The Cloisters, which I love.






And who doesn’t love beautiful stained glass?






The artistry in these windows is amazing.

Then there are the reliquaries, which, I’ll admit, I always feel weird seeing in museums and not in churches. That said, it’s better to see them in museums than not at all, but I do wonder where the relics went.



This arm reliquary is of Saint Babylas, and it comes from Germany, dated 1467. It’s made of silver, gilded silver, and rock crystals. St Babylas was Bishop of Antioch around 240 AD, and he was martyred during the Decian persecution. St John Chrysostom says about him:

… he presided over the Church which is among us, and saved that sacred ship, in storm, and in wave, and billow; and what a bold front he showed to the emperor, and how he lay down his life for the sheep and underwent that blessed slaughter….

Read more here.


This reliquary bust is of a Benedictine Nun, possibly St Scholastica!!! I think it’s really well done!

I’ll admit that when I see reliquaries in museums, I do touch the glass… they’re still third degree relics, right?! The museum also has a reliquary bust of St. Francis Borgia, but I didn’t see it.

Overall, visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a wonderful experience for art lovers of all kinds, even those stodgy ones like me, who just like looking at Jesus, Mary, and the saints! When you’re in town next, be it before, during, or after the World Meeting of Families, be sure to stop in and look around. You’re sure to see something that you like.

If you are coming to Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families,  join me on my fun and informative tours of Catholic Philadelphia, including the five local shrines and some historic churches! For more info visit our website.

Going to Italy and Coming Back Again


We flew Air France. It was my first time on that carrier. On the flight to Rome via Paris everything seemed better than on any other airline I’d ever flown on.

Before serving dinner, the attendants gave us a menu written in French in one side and English on the other. The food seemed far above ordinary airline food. It was French! There was pate! The creamy stuff that looked and tasted like raisin pudding was called mousse!LibertyPlaneFromItalyMedium

Liberty didn’t share my enthusiasm, but then he was glumly pondering the upcoming 12 or so hours without a cigarette. I, on the other hand, was in some sort of delusionary state in which the melamine cups seemed to be china and the coffee served in those cups was the best I’d ever had!

I was delighted that, after serving the meal, the attendants passed up and down the aisles again offering extra bread. How sophisticated of them: They were speaking French! It was French bread!

“Plus du pain?” “Mais oui, s’il vous plait!” More bread! Yes! Please!

A happy blond baby girl of about a year old sat quietly on her mother’s lap across the aisle from us a few rows towards the front of the airline. She never made a peep. (Liberty conspiratorily whispered a joking comment to me, “I think the baby’s on drugs.”)

Airplane Baby BedWhen it was time for the little girl to sleep, an attendant hung a cute little bed with mesh sides for her from the ceiling. The baby went to sleep without protest, and she awoke calmly in the morning as we neared Charles de Gaulle airport. The mother lifted the smiling child out, and the attendants then came and unhooked the little bed and put it away.

The flight attendants  were friendly and smiling as they gave out free wine and beer along with the soft drinks.

The seats had more leg room than usual on a transoceanic carrier. Each seat had its own personal video screen on which you could watch one of four movies in French or English, or you could play games.

As the trip went on, I was amused to find on the menu on my personal video screen a show about exercises to do in your seat without disturbing the other passengers. A slender woman, who was more serene than any human I have ever seen, demonstrated the exercises.

As she spoke, she sat absolutely erect in a white gauzy sleeveless top and pants, with her blonde hair tied back. She was barefoot. Her chair was placed on the front deck of a small green wooden boat that was drifting on a tranquil blue-green sea. You could see nothing except the woman, the chair, the drifting boat, the anchor rope, and the sea.

From time to time, the camera would shift away from her to a collection of actors of all ages seated in airplane seats following her instructions.

The camera zoomed in closely as she showed how to shift your weight to one side and tighten one buttock. Now shift to the other side and tighten the other buttock. Now the first buttock again.

The camera moved away to a shot from the back of the stiff actors in the airplane seats, who were rocking from side to side as they tightened one buttock and released, tightened the other buttock and released . . .. I just had to laugh.

The exercise show came to a close with the perfect woman sitting cross-legged on a beach. Rows of white candles in glass hurricane shades formed a half circle in front of her. Palm trees and the ocean were behind her. Her soothing voice led us through a breathing exercise as the camera did a tight shot of her rib cage and as it rose and fell, rose and fell, up and down with her breath . . . .

What a charming airline, I thought. I must fly it again if I ever have the chance. All was well.

Then impressions started to sour a little. Liberty and I were supposed to meet with our tour group in Paris after their flight from LA. We were supposed to fly with them the rest of the way to Rome, but their flight was delayed. The Air France attendants would not give us any advice about whether we should continue on our connecting flight to Rome without the tour group. When I pressed one of the attendants who had been so friendly on our flight, he glared at me and said, “Madame, I have work to do.”

We got on the connecting plane hesitantly, not sure that we had done the right thing. As it turned out, we were taken care of. We were met at the airport by a Japanese woman holding a sign with the name of our tour group “Littleways.” When we told our greeter that the rest of the group had been delayed, she sent us ahead of the group in a van with our luggage to the hotel. After check in, we were pleased to find a balcony in our room, and when we leaned out and looked to the left we could see the dome of St. Peter’s. All the hours during our stay there we could hear St. Peter’s big, deep bells.

manger_square - Version 3

Presepio in St. Peter’s Square 1999

Coming Back

Before leaving Italy twenty days later from Milan, we changed our reservation to return a day earlier than we had planned. Air France, like all of the airlines in Europe, and like Hertz and other companies, does not have a 24 hour 7 day a week phone number. Companies have what they call a “green number,” which is toll free. But the toll free phone is answered only during business hours and not on weekends or holidays.

Antonio, our tour guide, told me that even if it wasn’t Saturday, no one would be answering the phone. That day January 7, was still part of the holidays. He explained, Italians are at home with their families for the holidays.

The Italian Christmas greeting gives a clue about these matters: “Buon Natale, Buone Feste” literally means “Happy Birthday (of Christ), Happy Feasts!”

The plural word feasts is used because they don’t just celebrate one feast at Christmas. They start celebrating eight days before Christmas and end some time after the feast of the Three Wise Men, Ephiphany, on January 6.

Everyone was going back to work on January 9, the next Monday, but on Saturday the 7th the feasts were just not yet over yet.

In order to call Air France to make the change in our reservation, I had to first use my AT&T direct card to call the United States and then dial the 800 number for Air France. Because the call was being placed on a phone card from Italy, it was billed at the standard AT&T direct rate for calls from Italy to the US, at around $7.50 for the first minute and about $3.50 for the next minutes. I recently got the bill. That call cost me $24.00!

During that expensive phone call, the Air France clerk told me to be 3 hours early at the airport to go to the counter and pay for the ticketing change and get the new ticket. Fortunately for us, Antonio, the tour group leader, also advised us that 2 hours would be more than enough.

To get to the Milan Linate airport, we ordered a limosine because it cost less than a cab. The driver, another Antonio, was friendly and talkative. We conversed all the way to the airport in a mix of Italian and English.

He was taking the city streets, he said, because the freeway would be jammed that time in the morning. Milan traffic! Boh! Yesterday when he went to the airport, a cab driver crashed into a Volkswagen. He smashed his fists together to show the head on collision. When he repeated the story a second time, it started to dawn on me how painful it must have been for him to witness such a thing. “How terrible,” I had to agree.

“Yes,” Antonio said, “I saw it!” He mimed the head on collision again. “The cab driver–Kaput!” He paused. But, he said, rallying from his compelling memory of the death to his professional duty, I shouldn’t worry. Not with him. He is Number One driver.
No, he doesn’t live in Milan, but near the hotel outside the city. Milan proper has problems, he said, pollution, immigrants, crime . . .. In its favor of the old city, I offered my enthusiasm for the cathedral in the city center, with its white lacey Gothic spires and the gold statue of Mary as a young girl on top of its highest pillar. La Nascita della Maria. Que bella chiesa! We had toured it the day before.

Just then, with a pang I remembered a site I had meant to see, and now couldn’t. I told him that I was sorry not to have seen the basilica of San Ambrogio (St. Ambrose).

Neither Antonio’s English nor my Italian were up to my desire to talk about my interest in St. Ambrose. Ambrose is the highly-venerated patron saint of Milan. His patronage is so deeply rooted in the public mind that even the Communists call themselves “Ambrosini.”

I’d learned during my Catholic schooling that in the fourth century St. Ambrose had been instrumental in converting and had baptized St. Augustine, who in turn had profoundly affected the philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church. But I’d gotten truly intrigued by Ambrose and his relation to Milan only the previous summer while I was reading a story in a collection of writings from travelers in Italy. The story “Mediolanum” (which is the Roman word for Milan and means “in the middle of the plain”) is by a writer named H. V. Morton and taken from his book A Traveler in Italy, which was published in 1964.

Like Alice in Wonderland, Morton started by doing an ordinary thing on an ordinary day and then was drawn down an unexpected opening into another, mysterious world. The place that Morton chanced into was an antique, sacred place, immensely significant in the history of Milan, a place that exists on another level and almost on another spiritual plane below the present-day bustling streets of Milan. The mysteries in Morton’s story were sacred ones.

Morton wrote, “During one of my early-morning walks, I came unexpectedly upon the Ambrosian Basilica. …. Crossing the atrium, I entered a dark Lombardic church, cold as an ice box. As I stood shivering I noticed a glimmer of light under the high altar.”

Morton followed the light, descended a set of stairs, and found himself in a crypt with a number of old women dressed in black who were waiting for early mass to begin.

A man hurried in with a ring of keys. He used four different keys to unlock four different parts of an altar piece, and then he cranked open four metal shutters to reveal what Morton called “one of the world’s most awesome survivals.”

Saint Ambrose Crypt in his Basilica in Milan

“Three clothed skeletons were lying side by side upon a bed or bier within a crystal shrine, the central skeleton resting upon a higher level than those its right and left. This was my first sight of the bones of St. Ambrose whose remains have been preserved in the basilica since his death in Mediolanum in 397. . . . The skeletons on either side are the remains of the martyrs St. Gervais and St. Protasius . . . Roman soldiers who died for their faith long before the time even of St. Ambrose.”

In the tomb, St. Ambrose is in white, and the martyrs are in red.

The bodies of the two Roman soldiers are from the mid-second century A.D. They are lying on either side of St. Ambrose because St. Ambrose had been led by a vision to find their bodies. For many years before St. Ambrose’s discovery, nobody knew where they were.

When Morton was writing about his own discovery in the 60s, he was surprised to find that most citizens of Milan were not aware either of the presence of the ancient relics of their patron saint Ambrose in his basilica. Since then the word has gotten around.

St Ambrose's TombThe editor of Italy: True Stories of Life on the Road noted that nowadays no one is allowed within four feet of the glass case, “for security.”

It is too bad, I said to the limosine driver, I had so wanted to see the bones of St. Ambrose.

Antonio offered a solution, “We have time. I will take you there.” I should not worry, he assured me. He would accept my Visa as payment.

No, I said. It’s better if I do what the airline told me to do, get there early. “But,” I said, “if I ever come to Milan again, I will call you.” I couldn’t miss St. Ambrose a second time. And I would call him, but the second he gave me his last name, I forgot it, I think because I know deep in my heart that I never will go back.

At the airport Antonio parked the limosine, and we all got out. After he took out our luggage, Antonio ran my Visa card through his card reader in the trunk. Liberty gave him a tip.

“What do you feed him?’ the driver said. “There’s nothing to him. Not like me.” He gestured at his belly. “Not like me either,” I said. For a few moments, we shared a comfortable camaraderie between two ample-bellied people, a man and a woman of a certain age.

Then the little credit card machine chirped and typed out its okay. The receipt came out. I signed it, and we had to go.

“Speak Italian,” Antonio said to Liberty as a final word of advice.

At Milan’s Linate Airport

Both Antonios were right about there having been no need to hurry. The Air France counter was closed for still another hour after we got there. When I inquired, I was told the clerk was having her breakfast. I wished I had known so I could have stayed at the hotel longer to relax and enjoy my breakfast too. Or maybe a side trip to see Saint Ambrose….

I put the time to good use by stopping for a visit at a chapel featured prominently in the airport newsletter. After helping me find the chapel, Liberty went to find someplace to smoke.

The airport newsletter showed pictures and brief biographies of four airline employees of all ages who had recently died from natural causes, along with pictures of priests vested to officiate at their funeral masses. This was unique, the official organ of Milan’s Linate airport dedicated to honoring the work and lives and deaths of ordinary people who work there. Maybe this respect for workers is one effort of those Ambrosian communists?

At the chapel entrance was the last of the presepios I saw in Italy, which is a country with many, many, presepios on display during the holidays.

Presepios are little scenes that portray the birth of Jesus. They always include the baby Jesus, his mother, Mary, and his foster father, Joseph. Almost always they include an ox and ass, angels, shepherds, sheep, and the three kings. Sometimes they include an assemblage of other characters who might have lived in the village near where Jesus was born.

Churches and civic groups vie with each other to see which one can have the biggest or most elaborate manger scene. In my 500+ photos from our trip, I have photos of every manger I came across wherever cameras were allowed.

Because cameras were forbidden, I hadn’t been able to photograph my favorite presepio, the one in St. Mark’s duomo in Venice made of Murano glass. Murano, one of the islands in Venice, is reknowned for the skill of its glass blowers. The best hotels and homes around the world boast Murano chandeliers and wall sconces.

I already knew I had found a treasure when I came across the manger scene in St. Mark’s and saw its figures are made up of hand blown colored glass. The Murano glass presepio was in a dim area behind the altar rail on a side altar. Its presence was not advertised, and it was mostly unnoticed by the tourists who go through the church by the hundreds. I had knelt for over an hour at the altar rail gazing at the nativity scene and being thankful in prayer.

The figure of Our Lady was blue, I remember, and one of the three kings was purple with an orange crown. I felt privileged (as I think Morton had felt privileged by his discovery of the relicts of St. Ambrose in Milan).

As Mark Twain wrote in Innocents Abroad, the traveler’s greatest joy is to see something not previously seen. Even though the glass manger scene is no secret, it is usually seen only by Catholics attending mass.

Along with the joy of discovery, the beauty of the craftsmanship, and the moment in time that the manger scene portrays when the omnipotent God put aside his glory to be born as a poor child, all touched my heart.

At the Linate airport the day we left Italy, the presepio was set up as a village about six feet deep x eight feet wide. The figures of the twenty or so villagers were about six inches tall. A mill wheel revolved in a stream of water. The villagers were motorized too. An old lady drew water from a fountain.


Presepio at Milan’s Linate airport with smoke from the erupting volcano!

This manger scene was unique in my experience because a ten inch tall volcano in front of the stable gave off smoke and red light!

Inside the chapel a sign indicated two divisions, Catholic and other, but there was no physical barrier dividing one side from the other. In front of the pews on the Catholic side was a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament. The tabernacle was a bronze globe with a tiny red laser light beaming from its center.

As I sat there praying my Morning Prayer from my Liturgy of the Hours, I was pleased that I had a sacred place to come to while I waited for the Air France clerk to get back from her breakfast.

The Last Lap

From the start, even the Air France flight back to Paris didn’t seem as nice. The nasality and unintelligibility of the English instructions were now annoying me. “Ladies and genylmenn…”

In Paris again, we had to wait three hours at de Gaulle airport. I bought two American magazines with photos of the fireworks at milennium celebrations (which I’d watched on CNN like most of the other people in the world eight days earlier– while I was sick with the flu in my hotel room in Rome.)

While I leafed through a French magazine with photos and articles about the freak storm that had taken down hundreds of ancient trees at Versailles and all over France, Liberty found a place to smoke, then came back to the gift store to buy candy to use as a pacifier during the long non-smoking hours to come.

The plane that was taking us back across the Atlantic was smaller than the one that brought us. So much for the extra room between rows. When I lowered the tray, it wouldn’t lie flat because it rested on my (ample) stomach.

My mood on the return trip was so changed that the cups no longer seemed at all like china. The coffee was now mediocre at best.

No personal video screens on this flight either: There was a single video screen for every 10 rows, so we all were going to watch the same movie together. My ear phones worked only when I held them pressed into each ear with my index fingers. And even so I had to strain to catch any dialogue.

The attendants were unfriendly. The food this time was below-average for airline food, placing it in the almost-vile category. I only remember a wilted piece of butter lettuce lying limply underneath a scoop of pea and a carrot salad dressed with mayonaisse that had a metallic taste to it.

When I finally slept, the angle I slept in put a kink in my neck. I woke up with a painfully dry mouth to find I had missed the movie. On the far away video screen I could see the beautiful woman from the exercise video surrounded by candles. I couldn’t make out her relaxing words with my crummy ear phones, but I had missed most of the exercise tape anyway.

Long hours later, just before we landed in San Francisco, we heard a hissing sound we’d heard before and hadn’t thought much about. Liberty and I discussed it and decided it was the fumigants that the airlines spray before landing an international flight. A minute later, a big blob of white foam plopped down onto my right shoulder on my black wool blazer!

For lack of another option, I used the airline blanket to wipe the foam off. When I looked up and saw more foam dripping from a seam in the overhead compartment, I wiped that off too.

I keep meaning to get around to writing Air France a letter of complaint.

At SFO, a customs officer asked me if I had any meat or fruit. I thought about the mortadella (which in our country is otherwise known as baloney) that I had almost bought as a gift in a roadside stop–near the city of Bologna–and I said no.

The officer must have seen my hesitation; he waved me into the aisle where they look for contraband agricultural items and food stuff. In that aisle an officer asked me again what I had, and I said nothing except chocolates (chocolates are okay). We had to lift all our baggage off the cart from where we’d recently loaded it up onto the belt to go through their x ray machines. Then–after all that–attendants were talking among themselves and didn’t inspect the bags as they went through.

To get the rest of the way home from San Francisco, we took the shuttle van that was waiting at the traffic island outside the baggage claim. There were three other passengers.

Our driver must have been well into a double or triple work shift because he kept nodding off and swerving while he was driving. Trying to drop off a journalism student newly arrived from Spain at Hayward State college, the driver couldn’t find his way to the student’s dorm. Even though we asked him to several times, the driver wouldn’t ask for directions from his dispatcher or look at a map. I decided not to report him but I wanted wanted to try to prevent him from putting anyone else through the same ordeal. I also didn’t want him to get in a wreck and kill himself or anyone else.

I resolved that when/if he got us home I was going to say to him, “Look I don’t want to get you in trouble, but I insist you go home. You are dangerous to yourself and others. If I call the shuttle company in a half hour and find out you are still on duty, I will report you.”

But I fell asleep before we got there and was foggy brained when I had to wake up to get out of the shuttle. Liberty politely paid the man and tipped hin, When he got upstairs, to my surprise, he went to the phone immediately and called the shuttle company to report the driver. After he hung up, he said, “I hope I didn’t get him fired.” I told Liberty what I had planned to do. He said he thought that would have been the better thing to do, but it was too late.

The inattention of the custom’s officers turned out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise, because the next day I came across what I thought was a pine cone, which I’d forgotten about in my luggage. I had been fascinated because from the looks of it, I surmised that Italian pine cones are quite different from ours, and without giving it any thought I brought it home from the Borghese Gardens in Rome.

When I showed the pine cone to Liberty the day we got home, we both experienced all the emotions you can imagine as we thought about what might have happened if the customs people had found that in my bag!

When I moved into my house here in San Jose the next year, I saw that the neighbors have a magnolia tree. And on the sidewalk I see many examples of the “Italian pine cones,” which turned out to be magnolia cones after all.

Come to the Holy Land in 2015

This Christmas, as I knelt at Mass, sang Christmas songs, and looked upon the little creche in my parish church, everything I saw, everything I thought of was the Holy Land.

When we sang “Silent Night,” “Away in A Manger,” “O Holy Night,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” I was in the cave at the Church of the Nativity.

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When we sang “Angels we Have Heard on High,” I was in Shepherd’s Fields.

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My life will never be the same. Christmas. Easter. The Feast of the Holy Family. Good Friday. My prayer life will never be the same. And I feel so blessed as a result.

January 10th is the deadline to sign up for my Holy Land pilgrimage, April 17-26, 2015, and there are still spots left! Will you fill one of them?

If you’re thinking about joining us, let me show you some of what I’ve written and produced on the Holy Land. If you know someone who wants to go, and who would find this info useful, please send them a link to this post. The more, the merrier!

Let’s see…

There is the series I produced, The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Landwhich you can watch in its entirety right here. Here’s an introduction to the series:

An Introduction to The Faithful Traveler in the Holy Land from The Faithful Traveler on Vimeo.

Then, there are all my photoswhich you can browse here.

And there are the blog posts. I’ve blogged about the Holy Land so much since going. I can’t shut up about it! It was SO AWESOME!

There are my blogs post when I was in the Holy Land this past year:

Blog Posts after my visit in 2011:

Blog Posts about various places in the Holy Land:

There are the blogs of others sharing their experience: 

And my blog posts about pilgrimage in general:

You can go to the webpage I created for our pilgrimage here, which has the itinerary and all the info you need.

You can download the flier here.

Contact Select International Tours via email to sign up or get more info, or call them at 800-842-4842.

I hope you can make it!

The Christmas Eve I Met St. Francis in Assisi


Natale in Assisi Christmas Eve Day 1999

The Assisi tour had not originally been on our itinerary. Our pilgrimage leader had squeezed it in at the last minute. We arrived in Assisi mid-morning, and due to our guide’s too-tight scheduling, we had only a few hours before we would need to leave again. Our hotel, the Michelangelo, back in Rome about two hours drive away, was preparing a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and we needed to be there in time to eat it and then walk the few blocks to St. Peter’s for the evening’s main event and the focal point for my long-planned trip to Italy — the opening of the Holy Door and Midnight Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II to inaugurate the Holy Year, the Jubilee 2000.

I’d booked two tours back to back. The first was advertised to be a Catholic pilgrimage to Rome for the launching of the Holy Year at St. Peter’s. The Catholic group was returning to the states on Christmas Day. Three days later, after a planned side trip to Ravenna to see the mosaics, my son and I would join up with another tour group and go to Venice, Florence, Padua and Milan.

Even though my stay in Assisi was brief and botched and harried, I still remember it as a high point of my life. Especially because, even after such a short visit, I feel that made the acquaintance of Francis, the patron saint of Assisi from the 13th century. So much so that every once in a while, I still think his name as I would that of a beloved friend: “Francis,” “dear Francis.”

Our first stop was just outside of Assisi, at the town of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where we got out of our motor coach to visit the basilica of the same name. The area is called the Porziuncola, or little portion. St. Francis and his monks used to worship in a tiny chapel called Saint Mary of the Angels (which is what Santa Maria degli Angeli means in English). And St. Francis and his friends had lived close by in primitive little huts.

We stood together outside in the cold for a few minutes while our leader made arrangements about something or other with someone inside the basilica. A few of the group drifted off to get something hot to drink.

Around the little traffic circle where we waited there were some interesting sights to see. A 60ish Italian woman on a bicycle wearing a kerchief, a trench coat, and sensible shoes waited for the light to change. A manager scene was set up in the middle of the traffic island.

Since it was the day before Christmas, and since it was St. Francis who first conceived the idea of celebrating the birth of Jesus by reproducing the manger, naturally we saw several mangers in the area that day.

In an earthquake in Assisi in 1997, interior walls in the basilica where we were waiting to get in and in the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of St. Francis) crumbled. By the time of our trip, restoration had been almost completed on both basilicas.

But the reconstruction was not quite done. In the area in front of St. Mary of the Angels, fences of orange netting surrounded piles of pieces that had not yet been restored to the fallen walls. And, as I found out later, even though there was no evidence visible to the tourist, thousands of people left homeless by the earthquake would be just getting by in temporary housing for many years to come.

We couldn’t take photos inside the basilicas, but I can tell you that once we got inside St. Mary of the Angels, we found a surprise. Dwarfed in the middle of the floor of the huge basilica stands the tiny little chapel (now richly decorated) where St. Francis worshipped with his monks. A few yards away is the even smaller Chapel of the Transition, built later around the hut where St. Francis died. When he knew he was about to die, he stripped himself naked and laid on the bare ground covered with a borrowed cloth, wanting to keep faith with his beloved Lady Poverty until the end.

What would St. Francis think of all the splendors of marble and art erected in honor of his memory? I wondered. I know I am not at all original in noticing these contrasts, but they stayed on my mind as we got back into the tour bus and rode up the long hill to Assisi.

It is an understatement to say that in the middle ages cities prized their saints. The Catholic Encyclopedia (in the online 1907 edition) records that during Francis’ last days, the city fathers of Assisi dispatched strong guards with him wherever he went, to prevent his body being stolen by Perugia, a rival city, “which would thus enter into possession of his coveted bones.” Francis told his followers that he wanted to be buried in the Colle d’Inferno, a hill outside the city where criminals were executed. Did they listen? The answer came with the sight of the double basilica as it came into view at a turn in the road. Obviously not.

In 1236, ten years after Francis’s death, one basilica was built and then later another basilica was built on top of it, and together they make up the impressive building we saw that day. The double basilica was built to accommodate the huge throngs that came to honor Francis, whose bones are now in a crypt beneath the lower basilica.

We rushed up from the parking lot into the lower basilica. Before we went to the upper basilica, some of us did a detour when we saw a sign leading to the crypt.

St. Francis’s bones are in a simple wooden coffin above an altar on which many long white tapers are burning. I dropped a donation into a slot, and then I stood in line with others to lay candles for each of my relatives and some friends in a basket at the altar. A monk at the desk to the left rises every so often looking bored, and he blows out the current set of candles, replacing them with others from the basket.

It was a relief to pause and kneel there peacefully for a while close to the physical remains of the holy man of Assisi and to pray. That’s when I was surprised to feel I was present with him; in some indescribable gentle way, he became my fast friend at that instant. From what happened in my heart there that day and the similar feeling of meeting that occurred when I got close to the bones of St. Peter on another day on the same tour, I came to understand more deeply why the Catholic Church has so much veneration for relics of dead saints. Twice in my experience, being close to the physical remains of the saint brought me close in spirit to the saint himself.

At the museum at the crypt next door to the chapel is another striking relic, one of the actual patched robes that St. Francis wore. Two donation boxes stand at the door of the museum, one for the restoration of the art works, one for the housing of those left homeless by the quake. I left more money in the second one.

Our group regathered in a nearby cafe for a quick snack and a brief introduction to our local guide. Everyone was surprised when I ordered gelato, but that was my first and it turned out to be my only chance to try the authentic Italian iced treat. Public opinion was right this time, the cold pistachio gelato did not sit well with the cold of Christmas Eve.

Once we left the basilica, we saw hardly any other tourists. We trooped behind the local guide through picturesque cobbled narrow streets to the main square, where we peeked into the Temple of Minerva from the time of Augustus, now covered with a church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva). We walked past a prespe, a life sized manger scene in the town square.

As we walked around, local passers-by and our guide greeted each other with the Italian Christmas greeting, “Buon Natale. Buone Feste. Tanti Auguri.” which, loosely translated means, “Happy Christmas, Good Feasts, Good Wishes for the New Year.”

madonnina3assisiAbove one doorway was a Madonella, little Madonna. We saw many many of these images on the streets and corners in Italy, all different and all beautiful in their unique way.

After we parted with our local guide, our pilgrimage leader told us we could go shopping and to meet her back at the bus in an hour.

My son found a little shop that sold address books and sketchbooks made from hand-made paper and called me in because he knew I’d like it. After a while he went out to look at something else. When he came in again to find me (he told me this later), I must have been in the back of the shop, and he didn’t see me, so he left again, and then we lost track of each other.

After I emerged with some gifts, I strolled with my camera in hand, stopped at a few more shops, where I was always the only customer, always heading back down the hill towards where the bus was parked. At the chamber of commerce I met a nun whose order runs a guesthouse, whose business was only just then picking up again after the quake. We both got a free poster there, my favorite souvenir. The poster shows the basilica and the ancient forts above the city against a blue and starry sky. Natale in Assisi, 1999, it says: Christmas in Assisi, 1999.

My progress was slow, because my feet hurt, because my path was down very steep streets, and because there was always another photo to take. santaCocaColaAssisi
I wasn’t sure of the time because I didn’t have a watch, but I thought I was doing all right. I also thought I’d run into my son any time soon.

When I did catch up with my son again, I was standing at a fork in the road at the bottom of one steep street. I was wavering about which of two possible even steeper streets in front of me would be the right way down to the parking lot.

My son was frantic. It was 10 minutes past the hour. At 5 minutes past, the pilgrimage leader had announced to everyone in the bus that she would give me 5 more minutes and then leave without me.

It goes without saying that the ride back to Rome was tense. The leader was pouting because she had had her heart set on squeezing in one more stop, at a chocolate factory, and my tardiness had foiled her plans. Everyone was mad at me. I guess they wanted to stop at the chocolate factory too. I was sorry that my dawdling had made my son upset, but I was angry too, at the tour leader and at the mad rush she was putting us through that day.

Just for the drama of it, I sometimes try to imagine what it would have been like to have been stranded as a stranger in Assisi on a cold Christmas eve with very little Italian and no way to get back to Rome.

But of course, that didn’t happen.

The sunset over the Umbrian hills was gorgeous.

Back at Rome, we rushed some more. We rushed to dress before dinner, rushed through the dinner, greatly offending the waiters who watched us with disdain while we gulped the food the chef had specially prepared for Christmas Eve, and rushed out the door. Then we rushed to St. Peter’s Square. And then we waited.

Our leader had assured us we had tickets to be inside the basilica for the Mass, but the day before the organizers had told her that the seating was first come first served. After more than an hour in line with thousands of others, we finally got directed into seats outside, after all. At least there was no more rushing. We stayed right there in the same seats in the chill night air until the mass was over at 2 a.m. on Christmas morning.

We could see the ceremonies that were going on inside on giant TV screens near the Holy Door. We actually saw much more than we could have seen if we had been inside. At one point, the Pope walked past the open door, and then stopped and waved to us all outside. The 40 degree temperatures and discomforts didn’t matter. We all cheered.

I didn’t even mind very much that I came down the flu and spent several days during the next week in bed in my hotel room. I could hear the bells of St. Peter’s a few blocks away as I drifted in and out of sleep.