Friday, April 17, 2015

Firenze!

Last week, before classes resumed after our Easter break, the community took a "gita" (trip) to explore Firenze (that's Florence for most of the readers of this blog.)  What a beautiful city!  It's not as chaotic as Rome, but there seems to be just as many tourists.  Florence was (and still is) at the heart of Italian art, and so we went to several museums, taking in the Florentine scene.  Here's some of the highlights.  Enjoy!

After a very early morning train ride and checking into our hotel, our first stop was the Convent of San Marco.  It was a Dominican Convent, best known for the frescos of Fra Angelico which he painted in the monks' cells.  My room seems kind of bare after seeing their rooms!

Since it's Easter, I'll show the Resurrection.



The Annunciation - probably one of the most famous frescos in San Marco.  It is at the top of a stairway and kind of takes your breath away when you first see it.


Close up of Mary.
Then we headed over to the center of the city, where there is the Duomo (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flowers) and its detached Baptistry.

The outside of the Duomo is beautiful.

This picture is to make Sr. Gretchen and Sr. Nicole jealous.

The facade of the Duomo.

The dome of the duomo (say that three times fast)
The inside of the Baptistry has wonderful mosaics.

The Baptistry ceiling.

The tomb of Pope John XXIII - not of Vatican II fame, but the last Anti-Pope.  There was a little disagreement at the time about who the real Pope was, and just who could elect him.  Just goes to show that you can be an anti-Pope and still get some respect.
After lunch, we had some free time, so I headed to another museum at Piazza Pitti, the home of the Medici Family.  Now this is a house!  It was huge.  Those Medicis knew how to live it up.

Madonna and Child by Raffael

A four-floor staircase.

Along the way, we passed Piazza Signoria....

...and Holy Cross Church...

...and a little bit of dinner - amazing!

The next morning, we headed to the Ufizzi Museum.  It is probably the most famous collection of art in Florence.  We also had a wonderful guide who explained everything.

"The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli.


The Holy Family by Michelangelo.

"The Sacrifice of Isaac" by Caravaggio.

"Bacchus" by Caravaggio.
Afterwards, we had a traditional lunch of "bistecca fiorentina" (Florence steak.)  It was unbelievable, and cooked to perfection!  The restaurant was near the house of Dante, and the story is that Dante used to eat there.

After lunch.  I think we all gained weight from the meal.

But somehow Bro. Lester had room for gelato.
Our friend Dante.
The Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge, named after they had built a new bridge up river.)
Then, in the afternoon, I made a trip to the Academia - yes another museum.  I was pleased to find they had a musical instrument exhibit.  But, there was one piece I wanted to see, and it was well worth the trip.  (Attention:  Mom, you might want to cover your eyes.)
Just a Stradavari violin sitting around.

No joke - this is called a piano-guitar.

One of the first upright pianos.
And there it is:  David.

It really is a masterpiece.

As you get closer, the detail is amazing.

One more by Michelangelo - "The Prisoners" - which is a set of sculptures which were never finished.
Ciao!

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Holy Saturday: The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Two days ago, we began the celebration of the great Paschal Triduum - the celebration of the most central mysteries of our Christian faith. The Passion, death and resurrection of Christ. We follow with Jesus from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane. We journey the road to Calvary and wait at the sealed tomb. We greet the new morning of Resurrection and ponder the empty grave.


Tonight we begin in darkness and silence.  We gather together to hear the story of how God has worked throughout time and in all creation.  It is a story of hope, and yet we are also faced with our human limits and sinfulness.  God overcomes the chaos and creates all things as good, and we destroy this creation and forget our inherent dignity.  God leads us from slavery and towards the Promised Land, and like Israel we grumble against God.  The Prophets announce God's salvation and desires for the world, and we dismiss their messages so that we can follow our own designs.  We begin to question if there really is any hope for us...
 
...then an astounding thing happens - God happens.  Even when we destroy, God continues to create.  Even when we grumble, God continues to lead.  Even when we stray from the path, God continues to speak.  Even when we sin, God continues to forgive, and forgive, and forgive.  I will never forget the words that Pope Francis said at his first Sunday Angelus message: "Dio non si stanca mai di perdonarci" - "God never gets tired of forgiving us.  We might get tired of asking, but God never gets tired."  This is a message that Pope Francis continues to repeat over and over again, probably because we need to keep hearing it. 

This profound message of forgiveness and mercy and hope is repeated at tonight's liturgy.  A single flame enters, a flame that pierces the vast darkness and shows us the pathway.  A single word, "Glory!" is heard, a word that overcomes the great silence and announces our destiny.  A single drop of water touches us, water that sates our thirst and cleanses our woundedness.  A single loaf of bread is shared among us, bread that nourishes our spiritual hunger and makes us a community.



And the one flame grows into great brightness.  The one word becomes a whole chorus as bells join in the praise. The one drop turns into a pool of new life.  The one loaf urges us to go forward into the world. All reminding us that we are forgiven because Christ has won the victory for us.  He has conquered sin and death, and he has made us daughters and sons of the living God.  In the words of St. John Paul II we can now cry out, "We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!"



The words from an ancient homily for Holy Saturday remind us of what Christ has done for us and why we rejoice on this most holy of nights:

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of humankind, I became like a human without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.


May the blessings of the Risen Christ bring you peace and forgiveness and unbounded joy!

Happy Easter!  Alleluia, Alleluia!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

Yesterday, we began the celebration of the great Paschal Triduum - the celebration of the most central mysteries of our Christian faith. The Passion, death and resurrection of Christ. We follow with Jesus from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane. We journey the road to Calvary and wait at the sealed tomb. We greet the new morning of Resurrection and ponder the empty grave.

 
Today is a difficult day.  We witness the hurried and unjust trial of Jesus.  It's almost unbearable to hear Simon Peter deny Jesus.  We cry out, "Crucify him!  Crucify him!"   Jesus is mocked and beaten and forced to carry his cross.  Jesus dies.  He is placed in a tomb...cold...silent...dark.  This, too, is probably how we feel - a chill goes through us, we are left in silence, darkness fills our heart.  It is almost unbearable and doesn't seem that it can get any worse, but...

...then we remember Jesus saying, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."  In the Gospel of Luke, it seems that Jesus directs this comment towards the soldiers that are hammering in the nails and jeering at him.  But, I wonder if it isn't directed towards us.  After all, Jesus died for our sins.  By his sacrifice we are healed.  Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.  But even in our ignorance, even if we don't grasp the full importance of what is happening, we hear the words "Forgive them."  In that hour of most need, in that hour of pain and anguish, of chill and darkness, Jesus thinks of us and says "I forgive you."

While the crucifixion is horrible in itself, I am often haunted by the image of Jesus being stripped of his clothing.  It is an act of extreme humiliation.  (Just think of having that weird dream when you show up on the first day of school in only your 'birthday suit.')  It is an act that puts Jesus at his most vulnerable, his whole life literally bared naked before all to see.  He really empties himself because all - his clothing, his dignity in the eyes of the world, and ultimately his very life - is taken away. 



But it is exactly that emptiness, that humiliation, that vulnerability to which Jesus invites us by his simple utterance "Forgive them."  St. Basil writes, "Jesus dies on the cross so that we could be saved by imitation of him, and recover our original status as children of God by adoption.  To attain holiness, then, we must not only pattern our lives on Christ's by being gentle, humble and patient, we must also imitate him in his death."  Just as Jesus did while hanging on the cross, we too must say "I forgive you" to those who have hurt us, crucified us, stripped us, buried us.  If we want to follow Jesus, we need to follow him to the very end, emptying ourselves of pride and ego, and being willing to say "Father, forgive them."

Of course, this is never easy.  In fact, in my own life, I am having great difficulty saying "I forgive you" to someone.  Even in prayer, with only God and myself, it is extremely difficult to utter those three, short words.  But we are reminded that it is the path of discipleship, it is the path of Jesus, the path that we are called to walk.  Jesus never said it would be easy, but he did promise us that he would be with us all the way.  Yes, he is with us even on the cross.  He is looking down on us and giving us the greatest gift - that of freedom by forgiveness of our sins.

(This is a painting by Marianist Bro. Charles Wanda, SM.  I love the perspective - of Jesus looking down upon his Mother and the Beloved Disciple.  Can we see ourselves in the scene as Jesus saw us?)


Today we are confronted with a most difficult scene in the Paschal Mystery of Christ.  Maybe the most difficult part is to hear the words "I forgive you" knowing that we must also utter those words in our own lives.  Let us pray that we might follow the example of Jesus who has forgiven us.  That we too might cry out, "Father, forgive them," letting the beautiful and forgiving words of Jesus become our own.

Blessed Triduum, my friends.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper

Tonight we begin the celebration of the great Paschal Triduum - the celebration of the most central mysteries of our Christian faith. The Passion, death and resurrection of Christ. We follow with Jesus from the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane. We journey the road to Calvary and wait at the sealed tomb. We greet the new morning of Resurrection and ponder the empty grave.






And so we begin tonight in the upper room with Jesus and his gathered friends as they share a final meal together, a meal that is also our meal. But a weird thing happens in our liturgy. As the Gospel is proclaimed, we don't hear the words "This is my body. This is my blood." Rather, we hear in the Gospel reading that Jesus took a basin and pitcher of water and, stooping down, began to wash his disciples' feet.  Not what we might expect, but.....



...then an even weirder thing happens. Jesus washes all their feet. All. Pause for a moment and think about what this means. Yes, he even washes the feet of Judas, the one who will betray him, his traitor. And yet he still washes his feet.




We can ask ourselves, "how is this possible?" Maybe Jesus just didn't want to make a scene. Well, given his anger with the Temple moneychangers and his debates with the Pharisees, this seems improbable.  Maybe Jesus thought that it would change Judas' mind. But, Judas had already made the deal, and 30 silver pieces is a nice chunk of change for one small kiss.  Maybe Jesus didn't know the plans Judas had made. But, we are told very clearly later on that he did in fact know. Maybe....maybe....maybe. As we try to rationalize this from our own points of view, all our suggestions seem to fall short.



But if we look at this from Jesus' point of view, is there something more? We often see in this act of foot-washing a call to humble service. And we are right in seeing this. But maybe it is also a call to forgiveness. A great act of forgiveness that Jesus offers to his traitor. A great example of forgiveness that Jesus offers to us. A reminder that one part of humble service is forgiveness, to forgive those that have hurt us, betrayed us, killed us in some way. It is not easy - I know that from firsthand experience and am not always good at it - but it is what Jesus asks of us as we journey with him and take up the call of discipleship.

I have volunteered several times at the Marianist Family Retreat Center in Cape May Point, NJ. In the summers, families come on retreat together, and one moment that is always very moving is the evening Reconciliation service. During it, family members wash each others' feet as a sign of forgiveness and love. Without any excuses, without any words and without any fanfare, this simple gesture washes away much hurt and sorrow. It says, "I am sorry. I forgive you. I love you no matter what."



This is a reflection of what Jesus did as he washed the feet of Judas. It is a reflection of what we are all called to do as a Eucharistic people. I am reminded that earlier in his ministry Jesus taught that "If you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother or sister first, and then come back and present your offering" (Mt 5:23). How appropriate as we remember tonight that last meal that Jesus shared with his friends, the meal that we celebrate on our own altars in remembrance of him.



Tonight as we enter most intimately into the Paschal Mystery of Christ, we are reminded of Jesus' call to forgiveness, remembering that we have been forgiven by Jesus first. In his homily for the Chrism Mass, Pope Francis spoke of the washing of the feet as "the cleansing of discipleship...The Lord washes us and cleanses us of all the dirt our feet have accumulated in following him.  This is something holy....Like battle wounds, the Lord kisses them and washes away the grime of our labors." 



Let us pray that we might follow the example of Jesus who has forgiven us and forgiven Judas.  That we too might take a basin and pitcher of water, stoop down, and wash each others' feet with the healing and cleansing waters of forgiveness.



Blessed Triduum, my friends.




(Special thanks to Fr. Michael, SM who offered this theme during a recent retreat.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What I did on my semester break

A few weeks ago, I finally finished my exams and had about a week before classes started again.  Most students would probably just sleep in or take a trip to some warm destination.  But, as you probably know, I'm not exactly your typical student.  I felt like just finding a little bit of peace and quiet.  After all, since the start of the new year, I had entertained guests for 3 weeks, finished a semester of school, took exams, and been ordained.  It hadn't exactly been quiet.  So, off to a hermitage I went.

Looking for an "Oasis of Peace"


Yes, you heard that correctly.  A hermitage.  And yes, hermits do exist.  Bro. Javi and I packed a few bags in the car (I added some snacks since I didn't know what I was really getting myself into) and headed north, out of Rome towards Perugia, near Assisi.  Our first stop was the town of Umbertide.  After five minutes of walking, we had seen all there was to see in Umbertide and finally found what must have been the only restaurant open for lunch.  Then, we started to ascend Monte Corona.  So we were told that the hermitage was on top of a mountain.  They weren't kidding.  We just kept going up until the road turned to gravel, and then we went up some more until the road ended - at the gate of the Monastery of the Assumption. 

The road leading up....

...to the front door and monastic enclosure.


So I have been calling this a hermitage, but it really is a monastery.  It is part of a worldwide family of monks and nuns called "The Monastic Family of Bethlehem of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno."  (I'll let you catch your breath.)  They are a relatively new religious family (founded in 1950) and take their spirituality from St. Bruno and in the Carthusian Spirit.  That means that they spend most of their day in solitude.  They only gather twice a day for common prayer.  Pretty much everything else is done alone.  That includes eating and working.  As I'll explain, we were also invited into this lifestyle during our stay.

The monks and nun of the community each have some kind of craft which they do.  The nuns in France are known for their stone sculpting.


Now, back to the story.  When we got out of the car, the first thing I noticed was the silence, profound silence.  Except for a few chirping birds, there was nothing else.  Just silence.  I quickly discovered that I had found what I was longing for.  (Don't worry, though, I'm not leaving the Marianists.)  We rang the bell and we were greeted by the guest master Bro. Macario, a very friendly and affable monk.  He then explained that he would show us around and "how we do things here."
Inside the enclosure.

Also inside.

Our first stop, of course, was the community chapel.  Like I said, they pray here together twice a day.  But, they pray alone for a good part of the rest of the day, beginning with "vigils" around 3am (for those who know me well, it's another reason I'm not joining them.)  Their prayer has an oriental (eastern) Christian tone to it.  Their chant is fairly monotone, they use more incense than we would, and they use icons in their prayer.  I found the prayer very beautiful and easy to enter in to.  In fact, it helped me remember the transcendence of God, the God who is mystery.  After a long semester of theological definitions and categories, of attempting to use words to describe grace, and of trying to explain what is really metaphysical, I appreciated their style very much. I should probably mention that Morning Prayer and Eucharist lasted 2.5 hours, and the Eucharistic Prayer was pretty much celebrated in silence.  Very unique and very beautiful.


Stalls in which the monks pray.

Our view from the guest loft.


Then, Bro. Macario explained lunch and dinner to us.  Like the monks, we were invited to eat alone in our guestrooms.  So, when it was time to eat, we simply went to a small kitchen where the cook would leave us our food in a warming tray and refrigerator.  We were given a wooden carrying box in which we could then transport the food to our rooms.

Table for one, please.


Finally, we were shown to our "cells" as the monks would call their living space.  In my cell, there was a small table, pull-out bed, sink for doing dishes, and an oratory (prayer space.)  Pretty much everything that I would need for my four-day stay.

My private oratory in my cell.

Place to do the dishes.

My morning coffee routine (Thanks be to God!)

The window in front of my table...

...and it's a room with a view.
 So, you might ask, what did I do all the time.  Pretty much, I just relished the great silence and time to just "be."  Most of my day was taken up with praying, reading, sleeping, and hiking.  The surrounding countryside was unbelievably beautiful, and being outdoors refreshed my soul even more. 


Spectacular nature all around.

Even some distant snow.


Attempting a selfie.

The back of the monastery.


Did I mention that it was really a beautiful place.


A little medieval "town" that I saw on a hike.


And, of course, a sunset.

At the end of four days, Javi and I got back in the car....and started talking right away!  On the recommendation of our friend Fr. Loris, we decided to visit the town of Gubbio which was very near.  It is known as the place where St. Francis of Assisi preached to the wolf.  Unfortunately, we didn't see the wolf, but took in this beautiful Medieval town.

The narrow medieval streets.

Bro. Javi

Still channeling my inner monk.

Ancient and modern all together.

We visited an old palace.  I was amazed at how big the fireplaces were, and then I started to get sucked up in a Harry Potter sort of manner.

Gubbio.

One more view of Gubbio.


Ciao!