September 30, 2012

Language Notes

Well, I'm back from my weekend trip to the general curia, having visited for a couple days in order to be introduced to some of the little things that will constitute my new job. The friar who has been the secretary for English up to now is moving back to his home province next weekend, so it was important that he show me things.

Having returned for supper at the little friary where I have been staying (because of the easy commute to the language school), of course the friars quizzed me about my weekend. Among other things, I told them of my great embarrassment at having mispronounced a word while reading one of St. Francis's Admonitions in chapel. I just put the 'wrong emPHAsis on the wrong sylLAble' as they say. One of the friars--Italian being his third language at the very least--comforted me with these words: "The accent in Italian is something like their politics; it's hard to know where it's going."

Later on in the meal, partly because the school I go to is called Torre di Babele, The Tower of Babel, and because this is a funny--if not downright inauspicious--name for a language school, the brethren got to talking about the unified human language as it was, perhaps, before the whole Tower incident. I, of course, put forth my tentative belief that this language is now lost, and that this is why we humans have a hard time making ourselves understood by the animals. They expect to hear from us the names that Adam gave them. Of these, unfortunately, we are ignorant. Of course there are a lot of hard theological problems embedded in this question, such as, for example, the divine name as revealed to Moses. One of the friars put forth strongly his suggestion that Adam, Eve, and their pre-Tower of Babel descendents all spoke Ge'ez. I had neither heard nor thought of this before. I'll give it more thought.

September 28, 2012

Roman Style Notes

One of the strangest sensations I've had here in Rome is feeling stylish. Italians, of course, are really into fashion and its conformities. Walking the streets and riding on the Metro, one can't help but notice what's in style. One thing right now seems to be the classic Eastpak backpack. It's funny because it's entirely coincidental, but I have one too. I think I bought it on my way into the Order, which would have been twelve years ago. I also notice that everybody is wearing Chucks. My black ones, bought perhaps twenty years ago, are in the friary basement in Boston. Back then they were the acceptable hot-weather alternative to Docs. The really cool-looking kids, however, wear Vans. I had a pair of those too, way back around 1990. They were green, as I recall.

In addition to this, one doesn't feel as self-conscious here wearing the religious habit in public. It's partly because it's Rome and the habit is a common sight. But there's more to it than that. There's a culture of dress and uniform here that renders it less shocking. Once you get used to seeing the lovely epaulets of the Roman transit police and the shiny badges of the Carabinieri as well as all the other officious persons in official uniforms one encounters in Italy, religious garb and ecclesiastical dress just aren't as outrageous as they can sometimes seem back at home. In fact, they kind of fit in.

September 25, 2012

St. Cleopas

From the Roman Martyrology today:

25 September. The commemoration of St. Cleopas, a disciple of the Lord. Making a journey with another disciple on the evening of Easter, his heart burned when the Lord appeared on the way and opened the Scriptures to them. In the village of Emmaus, he knew the Savior in the breaking of the bread.

September 24, 2012

Eating the Passover

This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you will eat it in a hurry. It is the LORD’s Passover. (Exodus 12:11)

To receive Holy Communion is to eat the Passover of the Lord; it is to eat his having been handed over to his suffering and death, the passion which--and this is the whole mystery and good news of Christianity--becomes the passing over of humanity from its self-imposed alienation into the Presence of the Father.

The mystery reveals itself as a pilgrimage. We eat the Passover as those in flight, those fleeing the captivity of sin. But the Promised Land is not the next stop. Our next stop after Holy Communion is the desert, the journey in which, through our homelessness, we begin to see more clearly the real problem of our rootlessness. We complain, we murmur, in our being tested we succumb to putting God to the test, and yet we are also fed miraculously and experience God healing the misery we have insisted upon for ourselves with our sins.

September 23, 2012

Ex Ore Lactantis

After prayers this morning I was having breakfast with one of the friars. We were talking about the Sunday ahead; who was going where and for which Mass, etc. I mentioned that I was grateful not to have to give a homily today; I've had to preach in Italian the last three Sundays and it has been a challenge. Each time it was a lot of work for a short little thing too conventional in approach for my taste. But it has also been good practice, both spiritually and with the language.

As I was thinking on this I was struck by an analogy. Back when I was at the parish, once in a while I would have a chance to offer Mass with the children of the parish elementary school. It didn't happen very often; as I recall they came to Mass once a month and almost always on a Friday, which was my day off. But when I did have the chance to give a homily with the children, I really appreciated it. It was always a fascinating challenge, given the need for simple language and concepts, and also respecting the fact that a large portion of the kids had little or no experience of church apart from these moments. How could I try to evoke something of the pleasantly jarring surprise of the goodness of God and the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ without being able to presume many religious concepts or much of the basic critical vocabulary of Christian spirituality? Whether I ever succeeded or not I was always fascinated by the challenge.

In a way my current moment is something similar. But now I'm the one without the words. I might have the theological concepts, but I don't know (or don't know if I know; let us not commit the masked man fallacy) the common spiritual vocabulary in which the average Italian Sunday Mass-goer is accustomed to receiving them. So as much as I could I tried to stay close to the language of the Scripture readings. There's nothing wrong with that, after all.

Maybe such an analogy comes to me because I'm not so far from concluding this hidden life of language study which has been my first four months in Italy. Soon this infancy will be over and I will have to land in the general curia and rise to the occasion of being tested out in this new assignment.

September 22, 2012

Relics of the Holy Cross

Today is the feast of St. Ignatius of Santhià, an 18th century Capuchin who served his brother friars as sacristan and confessor, and was also at times a military chaplain and a visitor to the sick. In the Office of Readings today we have one of his letters. This part struck me especially:

"If the Pope (Sommo Pontefice) were to send you from Rome a relic of the holy Cross, you would receive it with highest reverence and devotion, and you would thank him for such honor and favor. Well, Jesus Christ the High Priest (Sommo Pontefice) has sent you from heaven a part of his Cross: the evils which you suffer. Carry it for his love, bear it with resignation, even thanking him for such favors that He doesn't hold back from his favored souls."

September 21, 2012

My Summer Days

Today I have completed ten weeks of Italian school here in Rome. By now the routine is automatic. Out the door of the friary and down to the Metro station. Most of the time I pass the same people every day, usually in the same order. The business-casual guy with ear buds blasting and always carrying a big book but no bag. It's an odd omission; here in Italy everyone carries at least a handbag if not a backpack or messenger bag. And yes, the men have handbags. It's European! Then it's the young man with the little kid. Finally, the old man with the little dog. Somewhere in the middle I sometimes get to say hi to the cat that lives in the outdoor seating of the pizzeria. Same faces every day, but you don't know their names/party people going places on the D train.

I ride the train with the Romans. The folks who look like they have good jobs get off at Cavour and Termini. The ones who look like students go with me all the way to Policlinico. I go up the stairs and cross the little piazza. There's the imitation Apple store. Turn the corner at the big bar. Pass the curious model train and airplane shop and cross the street after the bar with the red chairs. Turn onto the side street and go up the stairs into the school. Then it's two hours and fifteen minutes of lessons before the break, when everyone goes to have their coffee and roll their cigarettes. I stay in the classroom, enjoying the quiet and saying my rosary. After the break there's another little bit of class for forty-five minutes. Every other Friday there's a test after class. Nome? 'Charles' Livello? The test is always three pages. Fill in the blanks. Conjugate. Supply the pronouns. Transform the phrase into past tense, passive voice, indirect discourse.

After school it's the same commute, but in reverse and with different characters. There's the man who takes his midday nap on the park bench across from the ugly church. At the bottom of the escalator to the train platform is the lady with the cup and the sign that says, "I'm hungry, I have three kids, please help me." I don't have money for her, and I'm always ashamed when I pass by. But I won't take the other escalator. Even if I don't know how to be the Good Samaritan, I'm not going to be the priest who passes by on the other side.

Ten weeks of Italian school here in Rome, and a month of classes in Assisi before that. The funny thing is, I don't have any sensation of knowing more Italian that I did before. And the real tests are coming soon, so I guess we'll see. I do remember not being able to catch much of anything from the TV news, but now I understand some of it. It reminds me of when I was little and I saw writing without knowing how to read.

Nemo iudex in causa sua, 'no one is a judge in his own cause,' I say to those who ask how the Italian is going. And I'm being honest; I really don't know. There's a set of sensations that I remember from when we went to Spanish school; one day I'll feel like I've learned something, have gained some new facility, etc., and then the next day I'll feel like I've hardly begun to pick up a few words.

It reminds me of something I learned well when I heard confessions regularly: few of us are good judges of our own spiritual condition. Sometimes we might be too hard on ourselves, but other times we might be too easy. The point is that we shouldn't trust ourselves too deeply in our self-diagnoses of how we are doing in our prayer and discipleship. We should always have at least a little of the Paul who said that he didn't care who judged him, as he didn't even judge himself. (1 Corinthians 4:3) Instead, recognizing our lack of clarity about how we are doing should drive us to commend ourselves more completely to God and his Providence and also to the humility of obedience before those who might know us better than we care to admit.

September 20, 2012


As perhaps you noticed, this blog disappeared for a couple of days, along with my Twitter account. I just needed that little bit of space in my ongoing project--or perhaps the ongoing project of grace!--of clarifying for myself my voice, who I am online, what this blog is for me and how I use it. Writing, after all, is a spiritual practice not to be taken lightly. As Thomas Merton put it:

“If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men--you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.”

That's from New Seeds of Contemplation. It's amazing what an influence that book has had on me over the years. Right now I'm reading an Italian translation; since it's a text I know pretty well, it's good practice.

So, coming back from a couple days of retreat into the void, I've made a couple of adjustments. First, I've marked the occasion with a new layout. The old template was one I had been using since I started this blog over six years ago, which was before Blogger was part of Google. Not everything on the template was working rightly any longer, and it was also full of my amateurish efforts at hand-rolling some of the HTML. (In those days there wasn't yet the widget-based layout editor we have now.) I've edited out some old posts of which I've repented. I've also reduced the lists of blog on the sidebar to one. When I started this blog, I knew of only a few other blogs by Franciscans, so I thought it would be right and just to start a particularly Franciscan blogroll. At this point I couldn't even read all of the blogs by my Capuchin confreres, let alone all the Franciscans who are out there bringing some pax et bonum to the web. So now there's just one list for everyone: old and new blogging friends, bloggers I just find interesting, and those I feel like it's only right to link out of filial piety or because of visitors sent.

The licensing information as well as the disclaimer are unchanged, and both still appear all the way at the bottom.

September 13, 2012

My Blog Now Being All Stilled

I think that this blog has grown a little boring. I just don't have as much to say as I used to. Back when I was a new priest and working in the parish I was full of opinions and often full of spiritual reflections. Now, after the false start as a doctoral student and being summoned to serve at our general curia in Rome, there just isn't that much. Or at least there aren't the same sort of rants and reflections that made this blog what it was when it was going strong.

And what of it? Perhaps my current situation, i.e. the adjustment to living in Rome and the work of learning the language with all of the associated interior and exterior stresses are just taking up the capacity of my soul. Or perhaps, as I have come to suspect, I am being drawn into a new sort of what John of the Cross calls the 'passive nights.'

I was thinking about this the other day when a little of 1 Corinthians 13 was the reading for Sext. Knowledge--gnosis--will go away. Then there is only love. This then is the asceticism for someone who enjoys having something deep--or at least clever--to say. To love God and to embrace the Cross of Jesus Christ without the deal having been made with the flesh and its vanity that it will receive a thoughtful blog post in return for its suffering.

Cualquier gusto que se le ofreciere a los sentidos, como no sea puramente para honra y gloria de Dios, renúncielo y quédese vacío de él por amor de Jesucristo. (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, 1,13,4)

"Renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honor and glory of God. Do this out of love for Jesus Christ" (trans. ICS)

To me that's the active night. As John says, the passive nights are more awful and terrifying. But they are the work of God in his jealousy for souls. And from that little knowledge can come much trust. So thanks also for your prayers.

We adore you, most holy Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches throughout the world, and we bless you, because by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.

September 9, 2012

Some Pictures

There's something pleasing about the light today, so I thought I would put up some pictures of the place where I have been staying for these past two months or so.

This is the largo at the middle of the neighborhood. As far as I've been able to tell, a largo, "wide" is a place that's more than an intersection but not enough of something to be a piazza.

Here's the little complex at the end of our street. Through the gate you are looking at the church. A small community of four friars lives in the house on the right. Behind and to the left of the church is a monastery of Capuchin Poor Clare nuns. You can read about and see some of them here.

Here's the church. Behind the grate is the nuns' choir.

Here's the little chapel in the friary where we say our prayers.

One of the friars who lives here is the general postulator for the Order, the friar in charge of promoting the causes of Capuchins for beatification and canonization. These are their files and the storehouse of their relics.

The friary also has a garden. It's not as lush and mysterious as it looks in this picture.