June 30, 2012

The Little Differences

At supper tonight I and one of the younger friars got into a funny conversation about our cultural differences.

It started as he was preparing himself to read the provincial necrology at the end of the meal and he asked if we did the same thing in America. I said that we did, but that it didn't take as long because our province was a few hundred years younger.

From there he asked me about the typical times for common prayer in an American friary. He was surprised to hear that Morning Prayer is typically a little later than it is here, while Evening Prayer is a little earlier. In fact, the liturgical day is just longer here in Italy. (Between the beginning of Morning Prayer and the end of Evening Prayer there are thirteen hours here in the Assisi friary; at a typical friary in my province at home there might be only ten.) Or maybe it's not that the liturgical day is longer here but that the night is shorter, what with some of the night being shifted to the little riposo in the afternoon.

After speaking of prayer, of course we turned to meals. My young Italian confrere was surprised to hear--though strict correlations don't quite obtain--that our idea of breakfast was something like their supper, that our lunch was more like their breakfast, and that our supper was the closest thing we had to their midday meal. He was most shocked to hear that we have our supper as early as six o'clock, and often even earlier, especially in a friary serving a parish. "But then when do you go to bed?" he asked with surprised concern. Clearly he thought that the earlier time for supper would mandate an earlier time for bed, and he seemed relieved to hear that we didn't have to go to bed at eight. Not that I haven't done it myself, both here and at home, but I'm odd in certain respects.

Like Vincent Vega said, it's the little differences. They have the same stuff here that we have at home, but it's just, well, a little different.

June 29, 2012

Solemnity Scare

I admit it; there have been moments when I have been overly scrupulous about liturgy. I can be "precise," as my mother would say. And I confess that there have even been times when this has gotten in the way of my prayer and God's grace. But God uses everything, and here in Assisi as I try to pick up a new language, my anxiety has done something good for me: it has pushed me to start composing homilies in Italian.

You see, I know that on a feast or a solemnity, the latter including Sundays, those who assist at Mass have a right to a homily. So I'm always looking ahead to make sure I'm ready if it happens that I end up being celebrant at such a moment. Last week I made sure I had something for the nativity of John the Baptist this past Sunday. It was only fifty words, but it was something. As it turned out, I didn't need it because I went with some of the friars to the sanctuary of the stigmata at La Verna and concelebrated at one of the Masses there.

This morning, the feast of Peter and Paul, was a bit of a scare. At Mass yesterday morning I had understood from the conversation in the sacristy that fra Pietro would be presiding at Mass today for his name day. I was looking forward to it, as he seems very learned. So I didn't worry about having a homily ready for the solemnity today. However, in the morning when I took a look at the little book that lists the daily Mass assignments for the various priests, I saw that fra Pietro was assigned to Mass somewhere else. I was thrown into a little homiletic panic as I entered the chapel for Morning Prayer. During the meditation period following, I rushed my Office of Readings a bit and then went to the lectionary, hoping for an inspiration. Fortunately, one arrived. I thought of the connection between the houses built on rock and sand from the end of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel yesterday (a passage I used to use sometimes for weddings when the couple left the choice up to me) and the Church built on the rock of Peter's confession. That's enough for a homily, I thought, a little connection and a sneaky way to make the point that Scriptures are about God first of all. Basta.

However, I guess fra Pietro hadn't looked at Mass assignment calendar, because he appeared in the sacristy two minutes before Mass. When he was informed of his other assignment--which was alleged to have begun fifteen minutes prior, he ran off. Nevertheless, I guess it was too late or someone else had covered for his absence, because he reappeared in the sacristy a couple of minutes later. I happily removed from myself the lovely red chasuble of the principal celebrant and surrendered it to him, relieved that I wouldn't have to preach after all.

So that's two homilies in Italian that I've prepared but which I haven't had to use, although the latter was only in my head and just a couple of sentences.

This afternoon I've tried to compose my third so as to be ready for this coming Sunday. At sixty-two words, it's my most developed yet in Italian. It's up to God whether it gets delivered or not, but in any case it's good practice and I'm grateful to him for making some good use of my desire to be a faithful custodian of the sacred mysteries.

June 27, 2012

Get Fat And Dye My Hair

This is another ramble, I guess. But I also guess that I won't apologize. I'm reminded of one of my favorite things anybody has ever said to me about preaching: after lamenting to an older priest that I thought I had rambled a little in my Sunday homily, he said, "Sometimes you're the arrow, sometimes the shotgun."

Living in Assisi is a funny business. I think it's doing things to me. Like the light and space of Vietnam did to Mr. Clean, I think it's putting the zap on my head.

Everywhere you go it's St. Francis. Franciscan friars, Franciscan sisters. Pace e bene. The Tau cross. "Welcome to Assisi, City of Peace," you see as you spend your euro to take the bus up to Piazza Matteoti, noticing once again that you could have gotten away with not validating your ticket. I guess it all strikes me because Francis's own relationship to the place was so much more ambivalent. I think of his participation in the civil disturbances to his youth, and especially of his leaving town to show mercy to the lepers, thereby making himself unfit for respectable, public life.

Reflections along these lines arrive in my Franciscan heart especially when I find myself around Santa Maria degli Angeli, where I have often been in my free time, praying, going to confession, or just enjoying a flat place to walk and think. I pray by the Portiuncula and try to think of it as it might have been at the time of Francis and the first companions. Out in the tranquility and danger of the woods, just the homely little chapel and maybe some huts for the brothers. Just a place, as they would have said, not a convento or a friary or a studium, curia, collegio, or anything, really. No big beautiful church, no amazing bookstore where you can buy a tau cross or someone's acts of canonization or latest volume of the critical edition of Scotus, no sellers of religious articles and internet meme t-shirts, no pizza, no nice lady reigning as queen of the habit rosary and breviary cover racket. Just the insecurity and openness of not-city.

I guess Santa Maria degli Angeli is just one of those places for me, a place where the boundaries are thin. Maybe it's also because it's the starting point of my favorite travel story, which I have told many, many times over the years. Praying there these days I also keep thinking, for some reason, of Simone Weil and her experiences there. There was a spell when I was a novice when I became quite enamored of her and her writing, but I haven't thought much about her since. Maybe it means something, maybe not.

Is it gauche or bad form to make a second oblique movie reference to the same movie? I guess I don't care.

Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were going all the way. Francis got off the boat. He split from the whole program. Francis got out of town because it was there, with the lepers, that he found the sweetness of beginning to do penance. He went to meet Jesus where he was to be found, outside the camp, and bore his reproach.

We all know the irony of the mendicants then becoming the experts in preaching and pastoral care in the new complexity of urban life. And in some ways all the truths and myths of that still obtain. But I think for me it's still Francis's departure, his leaving the city, his getting off the boat, that draws me to him, that draws me to want to follow Christ in his footprint and his poverty, according to the pattern of St. Francis of Assisi.

June 26, 2012

Daily Life in Assisi

Not much posting lately. To be honest, I've settled into a pretty plain and scheduled existence here in Assisi.

I get up at some point between 4:30 and 5. Morning Prayer is at 6:15, followed by a half-hour meditation period which I have been using to pray the Office of Readings. Then there's Mass at 7:15.

I've often been the principal celebrant, and sometimes the only priest. The local priests in the house go out in the morning to offer Mass at other convents and chapels. I don't know if my being here frees up someone else to do that, or if there wouldn't be a Mass at home if I weren't here. In any case, I'm happy for the opportunity to pray and practice. I haven't had to try to preach yet, but I know the day will come sooner than I would choose. Though the friars open the door to the chapel, I've never seen anyone come in. I guess when you're this close to the basilica of St. Francis, why wouldn't you go there instead? But if you're walking by, it's the second to last door on the south side as you go down the Via San Francesco toward the basilica.

The morning Mass here at the friary is sometimes a very international affair. The other day I looked around at six of us friars and noted that only one was a native speaker of Italian. Apart from him, the other native languages were English (2), Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish.

After Mass I go to the refectory to get my espresso and my biscuit and then I get ready for school. I walk up to the school with a prayer and rest break at Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Then it's four hours of Italian class. The class ends at one o'clock, just as the friars begin the day's main meal back at the friary. So I walk home and into the refectory, deliver my best buon appetito to the friars, endure the bemused quiz about what I learned in school, and eat.

After the meal I take my book bag and go back to my room. I pray None and then think about what I have to do for the rest of the day. There's homework, emails, praying through the readings for the next day's Mass, and usually a few other things and some studying before it's time to go back to chapel at 6:45. After another half-hour of meditation, we have Evening Prayer and then supper. By the time that's done and cleaned up and I get back to my room, it's almost nine and all I want to do is read a little bit, pray Night Prayer and go to sleep.

So that's my life right now. Blessed for sure, but pretty plain.

June 21, 2012

Franciscan Ramble

I've taken to breaking up my uphill walk to school in the morning. I set out from the friary and walk up as far as the Piazza del Comune and there I sit for a spell in Santa Maria sopra Minerva before heading up the stairs between the bars on the north side of the piazza to get to the Via Tiberio and the Via Santa Maria delle Rose where the school is.

I don't usually go for baroque, but there's something I like about Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Maybe it's just that it tends to be relatively cool in there. The teal and gold novus ordo altar and attendant appointments are a misfortune, but it could be a lot worse.

Anyway, I was sitting there this morning, praying a little bit, reflecting on this and that, and--as I always do--indulging my compulsion to count the number of stars around Our Lady's head to make sure there were twelve. It was then that I recalled the anniversary that is today. I'm pretty sure that today was the day, seventeen years ago, when I first put on the Franciscan habit.

So there I was this morning, seventeen years later, wearing a Franciscan habit. It's a symbol one is acutely aware of here in Assisi, not just because the place is lousy with friars, but because of the overpowering Franciscan-ness of the place. But what does it mean to say such a thing?

And who was this funny little man who grew up here eight hundred years ago? What is this Franciscan thing?

One thing I notice living in here in Assisi is that there a various Francises. And there are various Franciscanisms that flow from each of them. And there are all kinds of senses of the relationship of these Francises and Franciscanisms to Christianity, to religion, and to humanity.

And then there's me, somewhere in the midst of all of it. That's just a fact of history; for better or for worse--or for both--my own adventure of Christianity has been very much bound up and woven together with this Franciscan thing. What was it that convinced me so strongly, on the way to this day seventeen years ago, that I was supposed to be a Franciscan friar? Is it the same sense that keeps me at it today, struggling with and yearning for and resting in this seductive and searing mystery we call God, according to the Franciscan pattern and footprint?

In whatever way it seems better to you to please the Lord God and to follow his footprint and his poverty, do that with the blessing of God and my obedience. (Francis to brother Leo)

My Map of Assisi, Etc.

Put on a Franciscan habit in this town and people will think you know something about the place. I guess that's justified. Every day I have interactions with various sorts of visitors and tourists looking for various sorts of information and advice. From this I've learned a few things:

First, despite having probably spent more time here than most visitors over my various visits up to and including my current sojourn, I am largely ignorant of the things people want to know from me. I can tell you how to get to one of the major churches, but that's about it. I don't know anything about any of the restaurants, having never been to any of them, and nor I do I know which place has the best gelato. I don't know which hotel is which. I don't even know where exactly to find many of the houses of the various religious institutes. Some of my confreres might say that my ignorance is the result of being a boring homebody who has a hard time making friends, but it also might be because I'm at home studying and praying.

Second, some thoughts on language: a good trick I have learned is that if somebody is carrying a guidebook or--if you have a quick eye--even just a map, you can notice from it what their native language is. Also, almost everybody knows a little English, but almost nobody wants to use it. But they will if they think, rightly or wrongly, that it's the best common language they have with someone from whom they want something.

Third, on the subject of maps of Assisi. The maps that tourists tend to have vary greatly in their level of detail. Almost none of them have all the little alleyways and sets of stairs. Therefore, sometimes people get disoriented when they take a first turn according to their map and it doesn't turn out to be what they thought it was, etc. This is all very unnecessary in a place that more or less just has one end and another. Therefore, as a service to the pious pilgrims of this world, I have developed a map of Assisi such that, when someone consults it, he will know right away that is simplified and not worry about all these little turns and steps and be able to follow confidently the classic Italian advice on how to get anywhere: Va’ avanti, sempre diritto.

(click on the map for a larger view)

June 19, 2012

Some Rules of Italian Capuchin Life

If you are young in religion or old in religion, you must wear the traditional Capuchin beard. If you are in the middle, you don't have to.

You may either wear the habit almost all the time or almost never, but not in between.

If you wear the habit, you should also probably carry a rosary on it, though it's not absolutely required. If you do, it must be a five-decade Dominican rosary; the Franciscan Crown pertains to other branches of the Order, thank you very much.

There is no such thing as laundering something without also ironing it. That goes for everything.

When it's not so hot outside, it's important to keep all the windows closed so that the house can stay warm. When it gets really hot out, the windows have to be opened to make sure it can be hot inside as well.

If you don't like what you are given to eat at lunch, you will probably have a chance to repent of your pickiness when you get it again for supper.

The food groups are the following, in descending order of predominance: fruit, wine, pasta, bread, cooked meat, vegetables, crackers and biscuits, Nutella, ice cream, cheese, cured meat, liquors in unmarked bottles with sinister and creepy looking roots in them.

Coffee is mostly an ingredient, but you can have it by itself if you want.

June 17, 2012

Italy Fail

"All right, if the applicant is young, tell him he's too young. Old, too old. Fat, too fat. If the applicant then waits for three days without food, shelter, or encouragement he may then enter and begin his training." (Tyler Durden)

Rides on the subway, two trains and a bus later, I'm back in Assisi after my long weekend in Rome. Unfortunately, my first attempt at obtaining the coveted permesso di soggiorno--the official permission of the Republic of Italy to stay here--was not a success. In fact, the whole business was, as we say, a glorious maladventure. After Morning Prayer and Mass at the Curia on Friday morning, I set out with the kind and patient friar who has been my Roman guide and interpreter. We had a long, hot bus ride through awful traffic, and finally arrived outside St. Peter's Square. After crossing through the Square, we arrived at the police station about an hour early for my 'scheduled' appointment at 10:03. I took a number. Standing outside with us were various other foreign sisters and priests. We waited. After some time the first number I heard called was a few past the one I was holding, so I displayed my lower number and was invited to come to the window.

I carefully presented my passport, along with the packet of documents, letters, stamps, and receipts, along with two photocopies of each document, letter, stamp, and receipt. After but a few seconds, the officious gentleman informed us that my papers were catastrophically out of order and thus my case could not proceed in any way. My confrere protested that we had prepared the papers in this way because this was the way it was insisted upon for the last friar for whom an application was made, after the papers prepared in the way the official was now demanding were rejected as out of order. Not only was the man unimpressed by the announcement of this apparent discrepancy in protocol, but it made him even more cross, and he dismissed me with another appointment for next month and a further paper which would have to be stamped at the post office after paying another 100 euro, and which had to brought back the next time, along with the two photocopies of the same.

P.s.: a small examination of conscience. After I put up this post I went to the chapel for the period of common meditation before Vespers. There I got to thinking that I ought to be praying for all of my fellow migrating and displaced people, especially for those who lack the securities that free me to make fun of these frustrations and difficulties. So that's what I did, and what I will continue to do in my life as a foreigner.

June 13, 2012

Little Things

It's a stressful business, living in a foreign place and with only the beginnings of the language. So it reminds me that it's a very good thing to stay grateful for the little successes one has along the way. Here are two for which I am grateful today:

First, I had my first successful communication with an Italian-speaking tourist. Not that I gave him any useful information, but I understood what he asked me and he accepted my response. On my way home from school the man stopped me and asked where he and his wife could find a good restaurant. I said that I didn't know, because I always eat in the friary. I'm sure he found a place without much trouble, so I don't feel bad.

Second, I gave my first homily in Italian, but not really. I did not anticipate being principal celebrant at the conventual Mass this morning. I expected that if it had to be a foreigner, it would be my fellow Italian student (who is more advanced than me) from the Krakow province. However, he turned out not to be very recollected this morning, I expect because the Poland-Russia soccer game last night. So, finding myself unprepared and not able to speak the language anyway, but having before me an assembly of friars having a right to a homily on a feast day, I tried to use the same shtick I used back when this happened on a Sunday in the parish.

I tried to say something like, 'Forgive me, brothers, but I don't have a homily for you. But St. Anthony, in the sermon in the Office of Readings today, says, may the tongues of fire be lit in us for the profession of the faith, so that, burning and illuminated among the splendor the saints, we might merit to see the God who is one and three. Amen."

June 12, 2012

La Santa Messa

I shall probably get in trouble or be found offensive for skipping school today. There's no class, but instead a field trip for cultural learnings here in lovely Umbria. It seems to me to be the sort of thing for the average student at the place, who seems to be much younger than me. Sorry; I did my semester abroad bit. Not that I was attentive to my cultural learning then either, but you can't go back and change the past. So instead of trudging around in the hot rain learning to appreciate the particular genius of the Etruscans, or whatever, I'm here at the friary planning to study my morning away. Besides, in my defense, I have started to read I Promessi Sposi (in English.) That's my nod to my cultural appreciation.

On the positive side, it was a grand thing this morning, for the feast of Blessed Florida Cevoli, for me to be the principal celebrant at Mass in Italian for the first time. (Florida (1685-1767) was a Capuchin Poor Clare. She succeeded St. Veronica Giuliani as abbess.) I was grateful to have my first time on an easy day; it was just the other foreign priests and a few other friars assisting, and no homily was necessary. For the Universal Prayer, they have a book of prepared intentions. It's actually pretty good; in the States I'm usually not impressed with such things. I'm really struggling with emphasis and pronunciation, but I think I did o.k. for where I am in the learning process. After Mass one of the friars complimented me on my voice projection, which was probably his way of saying something nice when he couldn't say that I had said the words properly.

Grateful for all that, off I go to the books, so as to use well this time when I should be at school. Here's a picture of another favorite friary sight. As I come up the stairs from my room in the morning, on my way to the chapel for Morning Prayer--this is about six or so--out of the window on the landing I get this view of the Basilica of St. Francis.

June 10, 2012

Delight, Normality, Reconfiguration, Humility

So as of this afternoon I've been here in Assisi for a week. Tomorrow it will be two weeks since I left the states. I'm starting to miss certain things: the brothers at home, CVS, the American concept of what constitutes laundry facilities.

Nevertheless, it's a delightful life I've been given for a few months in Assisi. The classes are interesting, and I have enjoyed the beginnings of my progress in Italian. Even so, after a week of school I have been grateful for the quiet of the weekend. Today I got up and prayed Morning Prayer with just a few of the friars--many were out at Masses and other Sunday work--and then, since it was just the two of us, the visiting American priest and I offered Mass in English with the help of his Magnificat. After that I took the short walk down to the Basilica of St. Francis and went down to the tomb. There I prayed my Office of Readings and then just sat with the saint for a while. I stayed until it started to get crowded, around the middle of the morning.

I don't deserve such a delightful life! Of all the Franciscans in the world--apart from the friars who live in the Sacro Convento--in these days I am probably sleeping closest to the tomb of Francis. As I think of this at night, I'm reminded of one my favorite stories I once heard about John of the Cross: how when he was superior, the only privilege he would accept for himself was the cell closest to the Blessed Sacrament.

But here's the thing, in a funny way I don't feel much. Sure, the place and its pilgrims confront me many times a day with the mystery of my own Franciscanism and all the twists and turns of my journey that first brought me to this place nineteen years ago and have deposited me here again now. But a consciousness of grace, of God's presence, of what he might be doing or inviting me to in my heart, of the sweetness of which Francis always speaks, these I don't have.

It reminds me of a workshop we went to in preparation for our summer in Honduras. The presenter advised us that it was normal to feel very disoriented going into a new culture and language environment. She recommended that we imagine that we had tattoos on our arms that said, 'normal.' When we felt out of joint physically, emotionally, or spiritually, seeing the word would remind us that these experiences were normal. This sort of thing is all very easy to name on the practical level; things that are taken for granted at home may be very hard to figure out in a foreign place. For example, this past week I wanted to buy a padded envelope so I could send some religious articles to the one of the friars at home. In the states I know the sort of place that has that sort of thing, and so this is an easy task. Here, I had no idea even what sort of place to look for. The same sort of pattern goes for social customs and everything else.

I think that prayer and the conversation of the soul with God are no different. As created persons we exist as a mysterious--often very blessed but also sometimes uneasy--marriage of flesh and spirit, of personal history and eternal destiny. And I think to myself that it's normal and to be expected that I don't feel much of God, just as I don't always know how life works in an Italian friary. Even in the midst of all this blessedness, the pathways of prayer in my praying heart and the consciousness of the Mystery we clumsily call 'God' have been upset and await the pain and joy of being reconfigured to the incarnate Word as he suffers and teaches and reconciles in the particular journey that is me.

On the one hand, as I get older on the way, it becomes easier to trust God when I'm in the midst of a 'night' of his apparent absence. Many times his grace has brought me through such moments in order to bring deeper faith and understanding to birth. I even think of how largely unaware of his grace working on me I was during the twenty and a half years I lived on this earth before my baptism. On the other hand, the subtlety of God's grace is a function of his sublime humility. And as one goes deeper into the humility of the heart of God, the more subtle the graces become, sweeter for sure, but also harder to perceive.

holy father Francis, pray for us.

Some Pictures From The Assisi Friary

The public chapel where we have Mass each day.

The friars' chapel, where we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, and have two periods of common meditation each day. The tabernacle is decorated with the dominical word, Prendete, questo รจ il mio corpo for the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ today.

The refectory. Around the room is the traditional Franciscan greeting, 'peace and good' in various languages. You can see the Polish in this picture; not visible are Latin, Italian, German, and Portuguese.

June 9, 2012

Mi Chiamo Charles

I've written before about how I'm fascinated by how names work in foreign-language environments, both in conversation and in liturgy. Whenever I've been living outside the states since being in the Order, I have always been prepared to be the version of my name in the local language. It seems, however, that the tendency among the friars is keep one's own name in his own proper language. I noticed that this is certainly true in the curia in Rome where there is a plurality of native languages. Even before I arrived there was a Charles, a Carlos, and a Carlo. There are two Marks and a Marek and a Peter and a Piotr. So there I will surely be Charles.

But also here in the very Italian friary in Assisi, I seem to be Charles and not Carlo. At Italian school I am Carlo; Professoressa Carla translated all the names she could, first thing. What's funny are the associations the Italian friars seem to have with the name. For one of the student brothers, it seems to be Charles Bronson. So when he sees me he says, in English, "Charles...Charles Bronson...tough guy!" Another of the young guys seems to immediately think of Charles Ingalls, 'Padre di Mary e Laura,' as he explains to me, often bursting into a rendition of the theme from the TV show when he sees me. La casa nella prateria, did I know of it? he asks.

I guess it just shows the reach of American entertainment.

June 8, 2012

Mormoni Riformati

So, as I am discovering: having learned a few words of Italian puts me in a far more strenuous situation than I enjoyed in my near-complete ignorance. This is because I get into conversations but don't know how to proceed. Here's a good example:

One of the friars came to supper with a piece of mail in English, an example of a sort of thing he had been receiving regularly from time to time. He wanted to know what it was and what he was supposed to do about it. Having me here provided him with the opportunity to discover the nature of these communications he had been receiving.

After much effort, I managed to explain that it was a fund-raising letter from some splinter Mormon group. (During this conversation I arrived at the term Mormoni Riformati, of which I was very proud on account of its Franciscan resonances.) I explained that these folks would like it if Father would kindly send them some money. He seemed relieved to hear something that freed him to dismiss the communication.

However, other friars had now become involved in the conversation, and the question of polygamy came up. They wanted to know why, if Mitt Romney was a Mormon, he didn't have more than one wife, etc. Without my help, which was useless anyway, they decided that he was a serious businessman and politician, and probably didn't have time for more than one wife. Luckily for me, before I could make an attempt at recounting Mormon history, the conversation turned more abstract and began to revolve around the assertion that polygamy sounded like a nice idea, but that one could adduce plenty of biblical evidence that it had its own particular stresses and difficulties.

Some Assisi Sights

A first set of random pictures. More to come!

I go by this door on the way from my room to the espresso machine. I'm guessing that it's where they put the bad friars.

The fabled DACA, the religious article wholesaler on the edge of town. The place for whose in the know to buy bundles of Tau crosses and other Assisi swag for cheap. It's a wholesaler, though, so when you try to cash out with your box of goodies, they'll ask you for an invoice. Play dumb and the guy will write one for you. This time mine got made out to the "Curia Generalizia O.F.M. Roma, Via Santa Maria Mediatrice 25." Don't worry, Leonines, I paid in cash and didn't take you for any more money.*

This cat started talking to me today, but when I approached it thought better of it and ran away.

*When I was let go from the OFM novitiate, they gave me $1,000 in cash. In younger, more pious moments I thought I would give it back one day. Inspired by a line in a favorite movie, I later decided not to.

June 5, 2012

Beginnings Useful, Pious, and Funny

Living in a foreign-language environment is a good school of humility. You don't know how to say what you might say, ask for what you might need, or tell the joke or story you feel inspired to tell. Certainly one could say that the protection of religious life softens or domesticates these challenges, but on the other hand perhaps the safety of the friary encourages one to bear the challenges fruitfully.

Today I was grateful for a few of my first practical uses of the very simple Italian I've picked up so far. First, at supper tonight a guest appeared at the friary. When the friars discovered that he was an American, he was given to me so we could speak with each other. It fell to me to discover who he was and what he was doing in Assisi, whether or not he was a friar and/or a priest, etc. If you're wondering why such things weren't known about a guest who must have been pre-approved in some way or other, then you have an idea of religious life as a much more organized enterprise than it actually is. I don't think I knew how to explain everything to the friars' satisfaction, but at least I managed the basics, and did enough to make the man feel comfortable and received.

Second, I was approached tonight by one of the authorities in the house and asked for what intention I have been offering the Mass on the two mornings I have been here now. I answered that I had offered those Masses for the intentions of the guardian of the house, proud to seem like a properly trained religious.

Third, as I was working through emails, a couple of the young friars appeared here in the "Sala Computer" and I could see that they were intrigued by my desktop wallpaper. It got to be very funny as I tried to explain Hans Memling's allegory of chastity.

June 4, 2012


As of this morning I am a student at the Accademia Lingua Italiana Assisi. Reviewing my entrance exam, the director judged me a beginner, and seemed happy and relieved when I agreed. I arrived in Assisi yesterday afternoon and have found the friars very welcoming. The friary seems like the kind of place that is used to short and longer term guests, as well as foreigners.

It's just about nineteen years since my first visit to Assisi. Having met St. Francis in a history class the school year before, I didn't want to miss it as I wandered through Europe for our Easter break with another American who was also spending a semester in Ireland. Assisi was something like a retreat at the end of that trip, and it was here that we split up. I have to admit to myself that in those days of prayer in the different churches and of hikes out on the hills, I was enchanted by the place. The visit must have contributed to my idea of becoming a Franciscan myself, over the opinion of the priest who knew me best, who insists to this day that I am supposed to be a Benedictine.

Posting is going to be slow for a while, I think. Here at school is my only reliable internet access. As always, thanks for your prayers and encouragement.

June 1, 2012

Humming Along

Last night the students at the Collegio (That is, the huge friary where Capuchins from forty countries live while studying at the Roman universities) organized a rosary procession to mark the end of May. As we walked around, praying and singing, making our way eventually to the statue of Our Lady out on a little hill, the prayers and songs were offered in a variety of languages. At the end of each decade a  Marian hymn was sung. Some languages I recognized, others not so much. But all the hymns were traditional, and I knew what they were from the tunes. Other friars seemed to know too, and they would hum along while those who knew the particular language would sing. It was a beautiful way to pray together.

Walking back in the dark, wanting only to get back to my room to say my prayers and lie down (I've not yet adjusted to the two-phase sleep schedule), I was reflecting on how the singing and humming could be a metaphor for my whole experience in this transition thus far.

One of the gifts of religious life is that you can go anywhere and be at home. Of course the life isn't exactly the same everywhere, but there is enough of a family resemblance to feel at home. You know the tune, even if you don't know the words. Until you know the words you hum along. Because God is so good, that's enough to know the communion that he is just dying to give us.