Monday, January 14, 2008

Peace on Earth!

Berkeley Christmas Lights!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Down at Lulu's

This is a hair salon and vintage clothing shop on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Everytime I drive by I have wanted to take a photo for Lulu. I think these three photos would look great in her "Mary Kay" room!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mass with Alessandra

Photo: Alessandra and I on the steps of Todi's Cathedral.

Today we took Tina’s daughter, Alessandra to Mass with us. She is an exceptionally pious soon-to-be 11 year-old girl. She got dressed in her best clothes and wore the rosary that Andreas made for her around her neck.

Tina was very glad that Alessandra was going with us to church and she said that Alessandra was even happier. “She adores you.” Tina said while seeing us off at the door, winking and making a gesture for me to hold Alessandra’s hand. Right away she latched on to me and off we went.

There is a bit of a language barrier between us, Alessandra’s mother tongue is Romanian, but she does speak a little Italian and English. (She prefers to speak to me in the bit of Italian she has picked up while in Italy, as she is too shy to try out her school-taught English!) However, through hugs, smiles and hand holding we actually understand each other just fine!

Her eyes sparkled as we climbed the many steps up to the entrance of the Cathedral, a place she had never been. Upon entering the church she quickly reached up to dip her fingers in the holy water and then she crossed herself. She looked around with wonder and seemingly a touch of trepidation as she walked down the long Medieval nave. She sat between Stefano and I in one of the front pews made of antique timber, simultaneously solid and warped with age, use and damp.

Like me she didn’t know the prayers in Italian, but she followed along meticulously in the worship aide throughout the Mass and tried to read the words in Italian as best she could, without fear of mispeaking! In fact, once or twice the priest deviated from the written text and she got flustered having felt as though she lost her place. She looked at me pleadingly and exclaimed “Dove?!” asking me in Italian where we were at within the liturgy. I tried my best to figure it out and would either shrug my shoulders or point to the line of text. She always smiled in response. She took communion with us, opening her mouth wide to receive the host, with her hands clasped in prayer in front of her. Afterward she prayed fervently with her eyes tightly closed and kneeling rigidly in the pew along side me.

After Mass we took a photo outside of the church and then we treated her to potato chips and soda at a bar. (I had learned that she prefers chips to desserts or even gelato!) I noticed that she saved some of her chips to bring home to her mom.

This story may seem anti-climactic. I guess it is. It’s hard to describe the way that I was moved by Alessandra’s piety and joy. It is something like bringing students to see the Sistine Chapel for the first time. No matter how many times I have seen it, something of the students’ enthusiasm and novelty is transmitted to my being and energizes me. It was like that going to church with Alessandra, but the rejuvenation was beyond academic passion and thrill, it was more of a renewing tender spiritual force.

Previously Tina had told me many stories of how special her daughter is as we peeled potatoes in the kitchen together or scrubbed pots. One of the most moving stories was about the time when Alessandra learned of a nearby town in Romania where the families were very hard-stricken with poverty. Many of the children there did not even have one toy. Upon returning home, she immediately set to bagging up her few toys and belongings to give away to those children.

When Tina learned what Alessandra was doing she ashamedly cried and tried to explain to Alessandra that they were just as poor as the other families but Tina worked even longer and harder to be able to give Alessandra those few toys. Alessandra smiled at her and said “Mamma, don’t worry, it is almost Easter and the church in America always sends the children of our church beautiful Easter baskets, so soon I’ll have another toy, while maybe those other children never will.”

Alessandra is a precious gift herself, a beautiful Easter basket of sorts, an embodiment of the Christian celebration of joy, faith, hope, and charity. In her presence I experienced a kind of resurrection within the worship experience. She is anything but poor in spirit, and does she ever have much to give!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Vocation of the Shepherd -- Andreas

On the way to Assisi, Andreas told me that he had been praying many times every day for Angela and the family. “I need to ask for your prayers, too.” He said to me. Of course I obliged and asked what it was that I should pray for. “Would you please pray for my vocation?”

I didn’t really understand what that meant – his vocation seemed to be a clear one, and becoming a priest seemed to be right around the corner. After all, there he was a seminarian at the monastery in Todi, it couldn’t be far off, could it?

He must have sensed my perplexity because he began to explain his long walk towards becoming a priest, one that has already been close to ten years. After his conversion during the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, he went through Catechism and soon there after entered a monastery in Germany. He was there for seven years and finally left when the priest in charge there told Andreas that he didn’t think that he would ever become a priest.

Andreas told me that the experience was a very difficult one, especially watching even younger men come into the monastery and become ordained in respectively much shorter periods of time. He didn’t know what the reason for all of that was, but he seemed to accept the will of God, albeit with perplexity and probably also pain.

He continued to keep with his studies for priesthood and I believe while he worked for the diocese there in Germany he came across some people who told him of the monastery in Todi and encouraged him to go there. He visited Todi and the community and had a very strong feeling that God wanted him there. In fact, he had been there for just over a year when we met.

I knew that Andreas had been a great gift to our family. There is no question in my mind that God led us to him. (See Blog “Seek and Ye Shall Find – Andreas”) Andreas told me that he never would have chosen this place for himself, but he knew it was where God wanted him to be. In fact, when he met Angela he laughed about the strange will of God, that he would send a precise German like himself to a chaotic Mediterranean place to put his vocational affairs in order! “We are all in the hands of God!”

Reflecting on Andreas’ story I began to see that we are a great gift to Andreas; we were among his first sheep to tend to in the way of the Good Shepherd. I think that Andreas has been able to see the way that God chose Andreas to bring Angela and the family closer to Him. We have all told Andreas how thankful we are for him and what a tremendous impact he has had on all of us. It is impossible to know God’s will, but it would seem to me that Andreas is quite priestly indeed and already carrying out God’s work even at this very stage of his walk towards priesthood. Perhaps Andreas is able to gain confidence as he continues to answer God’s call. After all, that is the true definition of vocation, isn’t it?

"Grazie Ricevute" -- Assisi with Andreas

Photos: Ex-voto with G.R. (Grazie Ricevute) and the Porziuncola within the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi.
Yesterday, Saturday July 14, I went to Assisi with Andreas. I have been there many times before, however this time we went to the few places I have either not yet or seldom visited. (We didn't go up to the Basilica of San Francesco which is the place I have most visited.)

We went to Assisi because Andreas wanted to go to confession and since all the priests in his monastery are gone camping he needed to go to a church. He said that Assisi is a beautiful and practical place to confess because there are many confessionals staffed throughout the morning.

Before entering the church Santa Maria degli Angeli (Holy Mary of the Angels) we had a talk on a bench in the garden. Andreas talked to me about somethings that had been on his mind as he prayed for Angela and the family. Most of what he said I have already written and synthesized in earlier blogs, he did say some other things to me about my personal situation that were right on. We prayed together and then went into the church.

The history of Santa Maria degli Angeli is very interesting. Basically, it is a church built around a church! Around the year 1000 a small chapel is recorded to exist in that area, which was at the time a cow pasture. Some 200 years later St. Francis came on the chapel which was in ruin and little by little he fixed it up by 1226 when he died. In fact, it is recorded that in 1216 St. Francis had a vision of Jesus who said that he would grant St. Francis anything he wanted. St. Francis asked that anyone who confessed, took communion and entered the chapel be absolved from all sin. Furthermore, Pope Honorius III granted the indulgence. Some 400 years after that, Pope Pius V built the Baroque church that encases the holy chapel within, the "Porziuncola."

We found that the confessionals all had lines of faithful waiting and praying. We picked the confessional with space available to sit and pray on the adjacent pew. Once it was my turn I entered and began to make my confession in Italian, feeling the awkwardness of a language that wasn't mine and a sacrament that I had only participated in once before. The young priest looked at me with mercy and said that he was American and invited us to speak in English! That was a wonderful grace, because it enabled me to talk much more freely about all that was on my heart and also understand perfectly his feedback. He knew of the GTU in Berkeley and seemed exceptionally caring and genuine.

Once I exited the confessional I saw that Andreas had also finished his confession and he was excited that mass was just beginning in the Porziuncola, a somewhat rare phenomenon. (Mass is usually held in the enveloping church and its altar, rather than in that gem and somewhat a relic of a chapel.) As we approached I heard singing that was very familiar, and then it dawned on me, it was some of the same songs that we sing at St. Mary Magdalene! The group celebrating Mass in the Porziuncola were Americans! Andreas and I looked at each other with big eyes, because I had mentioned to him in the car on the way to Assisi that I missed my church in Berkeley, especially the singing!

Mass was absolutely beautiful -- almost too overwhelming -- from the modesty of the stone interior while simultaneously being encased in an ostentatious Baroque shell, reminding one of the disparity between St. Francis' ideals and those of the world, to the strange sensation of being in an unfamiliar place of such exceptional origins, yet feeling completely as if I had come home.

When I told Andreas of the American priest in the confessional he couldn't believe it. "God has really given us some incredible graces today!" I thought about the many ex-votos (paintings or other objects left as an offering in fulfillment of a vow or in gratitude) that I had seen in Italian churches, chapels and even unexpected places, like roadside shrines. One of the most common ex-votos is a silver heart with "G.R." engraved into it, a sign of thanksgiving for graces received, Grazie Ricevute. I perfectly understood the ex-voto phenomenon in that moment, as I was filled with a kind of holy pampering, one that i wanted to memorialize.

I left a part of my own heart there in the Porziuncola, ever thankful for the graces received.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Miracles in Unexpected Places

Photos: Andreas and Stefano talking near the field of sunflowers, an upclose of what I call the "Marigold Madonna," and a more wide-angle view.

Today we took Angela to Collevalenza to be immersed in the miraculous healing waters of Madre Speranza (Mother Hope). The Italian Red Cross came to help us with the transport of Angela from her bed to the wheel chair, to the ambulance and out, around the sanctuary, and then back home. Andreas helped us organize everything and he also led us in prayer there, especially in front of the tomb of Madre Speranza, a very holy place to the Italians. In fact, Padre Pio, one of the most beloved Italian priests of the last millennium, used to have people come visit him from Umbria asking him to pray for a miracle of healing. “Why did you come all this way when you have the miraculous waters of Madre Speranza so near by?!” He inquired.

The experience at Collevalenza was beautiful, but somehow even more poignant happened that evening when Stefano drove me down the hill so I could shoot some photos of the sunflowers and fields of grain in the golden light just before sunset. I had taken many photos when Andreas came driving by, in fact I was about to get into the car considering my photo shoot complete.

Andreas began to tell us something from the car, but then he pulled over, parked and got out of the car in order to have a longer talk. He told us that he had a strong feeling that Madre Speranza’s message to the family was one of forgiveness. “Much healing can come from simply forgiving one another.” Believe me, everyone in the family, myself included, has done something for which they must seek forgiveness, and we all have many things that we need to forgive the others for. These painful incidents might have been done unintentionally or with a cold calculation, they may have given way to feelings of despite, anger, resentment, jealousy or greed, and they may be raw wounds from recent times or heinous scars from the past. In any case, we all need to both seek forgiveness and forgive one another.

The odd thing about this conversation is that perhaps only an hour earlier I had had a similar discussion with Stefano. When we told this to Andreas he smiled at me and then expanded on the topic of forgiveness with Stefano. Together they identified some of the family’s wounds, the potential motivations behind them, how to move past them in order to heal, etc. This encounter and conversation was an answer to my prayers for greater familial harmony and love.

I began to look around as they were engaged in dialog and curiously I saw behind me a roadside devotional shrine to Mary and the infant Christ, one that I had not noticed earlier. I walked over to it in order to admire the beautiful maiolica (Italian ceramic). I was especially moved by the vases of marigolds on either side of the Virgin and Child, and I wondered who it was that comes here to venerate and offer beautiful flowers along with their prayers. I began to take pictures of what I call the “Marigold Madonna,” set against a field of sunflowers in full bloom at the moment just before sunset. What a special gift it was to be in their presence; photographing the shrine dedicated to both familial and divine love I absorbed the harmony and peace of the holy Mother and Child.

Miracles may happen at Collevalenza, but thanks be to God, they also happen in unexpected places, like back country roads and fields of sunflowers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Bishop's Palace

Andreas asked us if we wanted to go to pray in his monastery's private chapel. Last night, Stefano, Francesco and I went to the Palazzo Vescovile (the Bishop's palace) where Andreas and his brothers reside.

I didn't realize what a special place he lived in! I guess I was assuming a more humble sort of monastery somewhere behind the Cathedral, but the building that he lives in is actually an Early Baroque palace! Before taking us up to their private chapel he showed us the audience chamber which had beautiful frescoes on every wall (including the ceiling!) of saints, biblical subjects and contemporary architectonic embellishment. There were many almost double life-size altarpieces of saints and martyrs and scenes of sacre conversazioni (contemplative paintings of holy figures in discussion with one another, regardless if such a thing would have been historically possible or not).

We toured through parts of the palace, entering each room in darkness, waiting while Andreas fumbled for a light, then all of a sudden seeing these beautiful liturgical objects in dim illumination, after a few minutes we would make our way to the next door and experience the same sequence all over again, only to find ourselves in yet another room full of Baroque frescoes and dark wooden choir stalls, and so on.

Once we got to their private chapel Andreas showed us some material that he had specially prepared for us, including all the prayers that we would say together, written in German, Italian and English! He had three of his own handmade Rosaries laid out on the chairs where we would pray. He also selected a passage from the bible in both English and Italian, it was Matthew 15:21-28, the story of a Canaanite woman who begged Jesus to heal her daughter, who was possessed by a demon.

Andreas left the chapel a moment and came back in with his white vestment and then prepared the monstrance by inserting the consecrated host from the tabernacle. He slowly rotated the monstrance towards us and then lit a little spotlight onto it. He knelt by the altar then joined us for silent contemplation during the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We prayed the rosary together, alternating in languages, and also read the selected scripture and meditated upon it. During my reflection I remembered that Andreas had his moment of conversion during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and how special it was that he had arranged this very intimate prayer session for us. Our time together in prayer was very intense yet peaceful and above all, beautiful -- more beautiful than all the Baroque treasures that the palace held.

Afterward we went to his refectory to drink some water. We told him how thankful we were to have the rope-like rosaries that he made by hand. He said that the material was nothing special and almost embarrassedly explained that the rosaries require so much string that he bought a whole reel of cord -- the kind that is used to make fishing nets -- in a little town outside of Rome. I pointed out the great theological beauty in using the material of fish nets for rosaries, and how it reminded me of Jesus being a fisher of men. He liked that.

Again we talked about many of the same themes from the last visit, the importance of not being angry with God, of not losing faith, and of offering up our suffering to the Lord. At the end of reminding us of these things Andreas looked at me and said once again "You are on the right path. Stay on it. You need to be writing these things down."

In preparing this blog entry, I went back and reread the passage and contemplated why he selected it that night. I found an exegetical study on line that was very helpful to me, the link is below. Of course I knew it was selected for the subject of a person praying to Jesus for a miracle of healing, and its emphasis on the importance of not losing faith.

What I did not realize until now is that there are other aspects of the story that are especially relevant to our situation. For example, the petitioner of mercy was not the one who is ill, but rather a family member full of faith, and it was her very faith that prevailed upon Jesus' grace. Another pertinent aspect is that the woman was asking Jesus for a miracle with a heart full of faith, not as a person seeking a magic trick, or one who thought "What the heck, it can't hurt." In the recent past some members of this family have sought magical cures for what seemed to them to be an evil curse, even going as far as visiting exorcists, magicians and psychics. This bible passage seems to remind us that all we need for miracles to happen is a heart full of faith and God's grace.

Here is the link I promised:

Monday, July 9, 2007

"Seek and Ye Shall Find" -- Andreas

Saturday evening, Angela's health was the worst that it had been since I arrived on Thursday. Zia Paola and I talked to Stefano about having a priest come visit Angela and give her a blessing. Stefano said he thought that Angela would be open to such a thing, even though she is not Catholic. Furthermore, he thought that it would be a good thing for the whole family. The challenge, he pointed out, is that the nearby priests are all quite elderly and not particularly compelling in their speech nor ardent with passion for the ministry, to put it nicely. The discussion ended there, with all of us longing for a young priest, open to Angela's protestant upbringing, someone who might offer a comforting and encouraging presence.

On Sunday morning I was able to convince Stefano to break away from the house so we could go to Mass together in the city. We left the house around 10:30am, and he suggested that we go to the nearby church where his sister Catarina got married. I told him that I would rather go to the city of Todi for Mass, and we headed off for the medieval hilltop city that we gaze upon in the distance from the villa.

Once we arrived in the city we walked up the stairs to the first church that we came across, thinking that we might just have made it in time for the 11:00am Mass. The church of San Fortunato was empty and a priest told us that Mass started at 11:30am. We walked around the church briefly and then decided to walk to the main church in the piazza, the Duomo (Cathedral).

Upon entering that church we found out that the Mass there also began at 11:30am. At this point, we took a walk through the market in the piazza and had a coffee at the nearby bar. We could have returned to either church at 11:30am, but we went to the Duomo. All was as Mass typically is in Italy... and then we got to the prayer of the people, read by a young assistant to the other older priests... in a German accent! Stefano and I looked at each other and read one another's minds -- this man could be the one to offer the kind of presence we longed for the night before.

After Mass, we asked one of the Cathedral ushers who the young German man was and how we could talk to him. We were told to go back to the sacristy and ask for Andreas, a brother in the monastery. Once we saw him, we called his name, and he seemed pleasantly surprised to be sought after. In German, Stefano described to him our conversation the night before, how we ended up in the church that morning, and asked if he would be willing to come to the house to visit with Angela and the family. He pointed out the Divine Providence that his brothers were all leaving for a camping trip that afternoon, however he was the only one planning to stay behind, and thus he was free to come pay Angela a visit. He seemed humbled that we would ask him to do such a thing, and very very pleased.

Andreas came that afternoon and had a long talk with Angela. She took his hand and held it three different times. He talked to her in both German and Italian and encouraged her to offer up her suffering to the Lord. He told her that as a Christian she had nothing to fear in dying. However, he reminded her that miracles are also possible, and recounted some of the miracles he has witnessed. He encouraged her to pray, because as broken as her body may be, her ability to pray will always be intact. He pointed to her heart and told her that God was inside, she was never alone.

He stayed to have dinner with the rest of us, and he told us of his conversion. He was a Protestant for many years, and then after having made a small fortune in his career, he calculated the amount of money he should pay to the church in tithes. He decided not to give any money at all and stopped going to church all together.

He was on an independent search for happiness and truth. For example, he always longed for a Porsche, and then the day came when he bought himself a Porsche. After a few weeks he wasn't happy with the Porsche any longer, and he began to want something even faster and more expensive. This sort of thing happened over and over, in many different areas of his life. He never was fully happy with anything, and never felt like he knew the true meaning of life.

Then, he was invited to a meditative retreat at a convent that began with the Blessed Adoration (prayerful gazing upon a monstrance with a host, which to the Catholics is actually prayerful gazing upon Christ and meditating with His more tangible presence). He said that instantly he knew that he had found the truth -- and of course he was a complete sceptic coming into the retreat!

Andreas seemed to say the right thing to everyone, casually or directly. To one person he happened to talk about the shame that churches are too empty because society is more interested in staying at home and counting money. He pleaded that we not be angry with God, because everything indeed happens for a reason. "Dio รจ solo amore." (God is love.) To another he talked about the urgency to forgive one another. And so on. Curiously, when he came to me, he told me that I am on the right path, and that I must be writing of my experiences. (The next day I began this blog with the previous entry!)

After dinner Andreas suggested that we all gather on the front porch to pray the Rosary together for Angela. It was very beautiful to be in communion with Francesco, Caterina, Zia Paola, Stefano, Andreas, and a cousin visiting from Rome, Stivi. I sometimes find that I have many more differences with some of these people than similarities, but there we were, praying the Rosary, all using the same words, offering up our same prayers, for the same person we love, united. God is so good. We sought and we found -- much more that what we hoped for.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

"Strange Gift" -- Zia Paola

Photo: At work in the kitchen.

"Strange gift" is the term that a friend of mine used once to describe a blessing that came out of adversity. Tragically, his brother died when they were both in their early twenties. He had a terrible time coping with the loss, as did the family. However, later he recognized that it was the death of his brother that brought him back to the Church after several years of questioning his faith. The "strange gift" that came out of the great pain of losing his brother was his new commitment to the church and a faith that was stronger than ever.

"Why do bad things happen to good people?" is something I hear asked often. Similarly, I have wondered why bad things happen in a world made by a God who is so good. Of course I don't know the answer to those questions, nor do I think that any human being is capable of fully understanding the answers to God's mysteries. I do believe that everything that happens -- even adversity and tragedy -- is a part of God's plan.

I have been blessed with many "strange gifts" in my life, and each of them has been a reassurance that God's goodness doesn't stop, even in the hardest moments of our lives. Each time I identify a "strange gift" it is like I have been given a small glimpse into God's dynamics, peacefully reassuring me that indeed He works in mysterious ways.

I rushed to Italy on Wednesday, July 4th (arriving Thursday July 5th) to be with Stefano and his family as we care for his mother Angela in the last phases of her fight with brain cancer. Immediately I sought an understanding of what I could do to help here. In the beginning I wasn't sure that Angela recognized me, much less how she felt about my presence. (Stefano told me that the night before I left he told her I was coming and she was moved to tears, so I have been holding on to the idea that she is glad I am here.) I am not as good at understanding her needs as Stefano or his sister Caterina. Even the housekeeper, Tina is better than me at this, as she has been present with Angela every day in the last six months through the decline.

Then I found myself in the kitchen with Zia Paola (Aunt Paula) as she prepared one of the meals for about 12. (All of Stefano's family, plus the friends and family that have been taking rotations here to help, plus Tina, her husband and daughter who live downstairs.) Preparing a meal for 12 is no sweat for Zia Paola, for she has catered for a group as large as 3,000! Paola gave me little tasks to do to help her in the meal preparation, tips on how to do things and the logic behind them.

I must admit that her friendliness toward me took me off guard. Paola is known to be a straight-shooter with a sarcastic sense of humor and very strong opinions. She is short in stature, has dark coloring, and cooks with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She is Francesco's youngest sister, possibly the youngest of all eight siblings, but one of the toughest, and as she proudly self-proclaims, the most rebellious.

It came as an even greater shock to me the next morning at breakfast when she asked Stefano what his favorite foods were and what kinds of things he requested for his birthday dinners. She turned to me and said that the next few meals would include those items so I would know how to prepare them for Stefano.

This is where the "strange gift" comes in. One would think that in all the time we lived here in Italy, and all the meals we ate with Angela, that I would have learned a few things from her in the kitchen. Angela always told me that she would teach me as soon as the big house was ready, because in the little house there wasn't hardly room for two people to be in the kitchen at the same time. Then, once the big house was ready, Angela was in the midst of her fight with breast cancer, and then after a few months of remission, she began a new battle against brain cancer.

I thought that all hope was lost for me learning the family recipes. (I write this fully heeding the warning that my best Italian guy friend from New York gave me after getting married: "No matter how good you cook meatballs, even using his mother's recipe, your meatballs will never be as good as hers. And you can't hold that against him.") It made me sad to think of my inability to prepare some of the "comfort foods" that Stefano was used to, and of not being able to share some of Stefano's family recipes with our children one day.

However, already in the last few days Zia Paola has taught me dozens of recipes, variations on each preparation, some cooking theory, etc. We also did all of the shopping together where she showed me how to select certain ingredients, which brands were best, etc. She even had me drive the car, for what was probably the first time (or one of the first times) in Italy! She proudly announced afterwards "the liberation of Jenny has begun!" I noted the beautiful irony that driving, shopping and cooking for her were acts of liberation, while in America they may have more of an air of bound domesticity.

She has told me hundreds of stories of her youth, traveling all over Europe by her self as a young woman, what life was like growing up in the home of a noble Neapolitan family just after the war, and many other tales of the best and worst of times. We have shared lamentation over cutting kilos of onions, burnt our fingers and tongues as we moved hot pans and taste-tested our boiling creations, we have sweat beaded droplets over frying bitter eggplant, and it is all part of what I consider to be an enormous blessing.

Amidst all of the angst, fret and pain that my family is facing caring for Angela in the hardest phase of this terminal disease, putting plates of comfort foods made with my own hands on the table before my loved ones is an even greater blessing.

Spending the last few days in the kitchen with Zia Paola has been a "strange gift" indeed.