The cathedral in Pisa, the nearby town of Leaning Tower fame, is celebrating its 900th anniversary. One of my sisters here could not even conceive of a 900 year old church. The USA is young, 400 years; 1620 the year of the Mayflower landing in Plymouth Mass. 1776 is the beginning of the USA as an independent country not even 250 years old. At any rate, the icon of the Madonna of Pisa from the cathedral is making a tour, visiting the nearby towns and villages in the diocese to honor and celebrate these 900 years. Barga, my hillside town will host the lovely Madonna for 2 weeks. A planning meeting for Eucharists at the surrounding churches and a procession up through the old walled city to the Duomo was in order. Songs, Eucharists, adoration and a speaker are all part of the celebration. Villa Via Sacra, our community here, was graciously invited to take part in this small town’s very Catholic and special celebration; one sister and one brother were off to a meeting all in Italian in a small classroom next to one of the town’s many churches. A compassionate, genteel yet very efficient padre organized us all.
The spirit was congenial, open and welcoming, including we, the non-Italian speaking American religious ecumenical community and the choir directors and representatives of the churches of Barga and the surrounding very Catholic and Italian villages. Now we spoke only rudimentary Italian and when we left an hour and fifteen minutes later after smiling a lot and laughing hopefully at the correct moments, we were not totally sure what we had agreed to or what we were going to be a part of but it did all seem wonderful. One other Italian member who presumably was supposed to help us actually spoke less English than we Italian! This is a small Italian town!
By the end of the meeting, I had crafted a sentence in Italian which I was presumably going to pronounce “thank you so much for including us in the meeting” When I began, the Italian choir director, next to me finished the sentence for me knowing instinctively the spirit I wanted so much to convey. God is amazing and it truly only mattered that we were one in His spirit. I think the Madonna of Pisa is already pleased with and blessing our celebration.
Snow everywhere…… Brugge, Paris and of course here in Barga !! Barga is high in the Apennines with mountains all around and has been enshrouded in clouds and blanketed with 5 inches of snow for several days now. Now Americans shovel and clear the streets and walkways…. but not so in Italy. The inhabitants simply close the doors, shutters, and churches and stay inside and wait for warmer weather to melt the snow! I, however, was in Paris when Northern Europe was blanketed with snowfall! Would my plane leave or not? In fact, the flight was delayed three hours as Pisa was enclosed in rain and snow and cloud cover. Relief was the primary emotion of my fellow passengers and myself at touchdown on the slushy runway. Then began the harrowing drive into the mountains snow and rain outside the car and on the roads and a slippery prayerfully done mounting to our hillside home. We prayed a lot for driving angels if there is such a category in heaven and were so thankful to arrive in the slushy unplowed parking. One brother, two suitcases and myself crawled up the unshoveled, snow-covered, slippery, steep cobblestone walkways to the villa. Now from my lofty peek I could peer out the window, over the garden, out to the roofs of the old Barga homes and enjoy the SNOW! My ecstasy about the snow at the Begijnhof has been written about in these blogs and here again was lots of snow. I was sorry to miss the blanket of snow my Brugge sisters say is there covering the Begijnhof courtyard. I did gallop for my camera and caught a few photos when the cloud cover that comes and goes allowed. The warming of the sun will take all the wonderful snow away this week but I have loved it…..twice I got snow this year. God does so love us not only once but twice I received the gift of snow. Two dogs live here at the villa; they too are ecstatic in the snows. The black poodle and the terrier leap and frolic, chasing their ball around in the snow-covered garden grass losing the ball and furiously discovering it again. Such fun was had pouncing and bounding around. Thank you, God for Snow!
I do miss the Begijnhof in Brugge, Belgium — the quiet, prayerfulness and praise of everyday life at the convent there. I have traded it for the active outreach of my home community’s mission in Barga, Italy for three months. However, every morning I still have the joy of singing Lauds at 7:15 am.
Today I glanced out the garden room window, (we are doing Lauds inside as it
is too cold in our outside oratorio on the villa grounds). Lauds,
parkas, and scarves are somehow not quite conducive to the reverence we
are looking for in the Gregorian chant service. My mind wandered to
the fact that my sisters at the Begijnhof were chanting Lauds at the
very same time. I can think of and pray for them every day at Lauds. Each morning I know exactly where my Begijnhof sisters are and I can imagine them in the church in the early morning light. We are together in spirit! Every day is the rosary is prayed at the Begijnhof at 4 pm and although I am often engaged in some activity at 4pm, I can think of my sisters praying the rosary at that time.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to actually pray the rosary ‘with them’ at 4 pm. I was in a line of four cars in an Italian car wash. In a line of four cars, there is no indication that you will be done in 30 minutes as one might be at home in the USA. This would be definitely an hour and a half stint! But….what could be better than sitting in a warm car with sunlit mountains in front of you, while watching Italian women come and go, taking the laundry in from their balconies. It was a good day for washing and drying laundry – no dryers for these ladies. So there I was, praying the rosary while I waited – just like my sisters and with my sisters at the Begijnhof. There is a communion of spirit that I or maybe we do not quite understand but sometimes we can experience it if we are open.
Italian children in church just make me smile. We monastics hustled off to Sunday Eucharist at the small local church in the old walled city of Barga, Italy. Many of the churches here in Italian mountains are served by faithful priests rotating around in the tiny villages; they are a faithful and busy group. Anyone of them may be doing the daily Eucharist which also rotates among the churches. This particular Sunday, there was a choir of 10 or so robed children and acolytes on the altar and another 10 slightly younger children in the front rows of the congregation. Behind me, there were three little energetic boys, ages 2-4 years trying to amuse themselves during the service. These three loved playing ‘hide and seek’ under, in and around the large stone side altars under giant canvasses of Mary and Anna her mother. Now when I was little, such activity would never have been allowed but for these young Italian families, the church was God’s house and the children entirely welcome to be themselves and simply accept the love, and play in God’s house. It was so abundantly natural I could hardly take it in.
The choir children before the start of the Eucharist, clustered by a side altar and hauled their parkas off, (it is cold here!) and donned there white cossack and red scapular. Two boys dangled their parka hood on the outside preferring to stay warm. It was all wonderful and natural. I loved it. The children not in the choir brought up the elements, all 8 of them. The priest, a young exuberant one, handled this so easily. It made no difference if the wine cruet was askew or the water sloshed. I was surprised all did not land on the floor but it did not! Our young priest and all of the older nonne and nonni ( grandmas and grandpas) seemed totally at ease with this arrangement and of course the children adored it, being part of the service to God, abundantly clear from the joy and delight on their faces. Two children were most privileged to hold the lace trimmed altar cloth under the priest as he administered the Corpo di Christo. As long as we have children delighted by the altar and the elements, there is hope for the world. My smile widened.
Friday is the day to eat fish, or better still abstain from eating meat. Fish is allowed, as Jesus served fish to his disciples. This small sacrifice has been a longstanding church decree to honor the great sacrifice Jesus made for mankind on the cross on Good Friday. Although my home community is in Massachusetts where fishing villages abound, fish is not considered normal fare for dinner. Perhaps on special days, people opt for the fish market and buy fresh swordfish,cod, or haddock (or in my younger years, tuna). When I was younger, it was an adventure to go to the fish pier and watch the boats come in and unload their daily haul of fish. A friend worked there, and I discovered it was a smelly and somewhat treacherous job.
Fish is served regularly at the Begijnhof on Fridays. It is not the fish sticks so common in America, and sometimes it is the complete fish, needing delicate de-boning to eat the savory fish meat — testing and increasing my fish knife skill. Sometimes the fish is a nicely breaded and browned filet, easily devoured without special skill or utensil. Today was a new and ever increasing challenge. It was herring! First of all, I did not recognize it, as I do not think I have eaten herring since childhood. (A Swedish neighbor made a pickled item called ‘sil’ which I remember not liking.) Second, I expected the fish on my plate to be hot and it was cold with onions. That was a surprise! As I eyed the slithery fish, I decided he was meant to be eaten skin and all so I did. I was hungry. After learning that it was herring I had eaten, and it was always served cold, I had a new appreciation for the expression ‘cold fish’. Eating herring once was passable, but the fish made unwelcome return visits throughout the afternoon. However, I felt strangely guilt-free eating a lot of chocolate to dispel the ever recurring taste of herring. Adventures abound!
My home community’s mission in Barga, Italy, includes several brothers and sisters; we sing the daily Liturgy of the Hours in Gregorian chant: Lauds, Midday and Vespers (scaled down from the USA where our community sings Lauds, Midday, Eucharist, Vespers, and Compline). This early morning in the mist and dark of early February in the Italian Apennines, we trudged to the Oratorio just outside the villa but on the grounds and prepared for Lauds at 7:15 AM. A faithful brother goes early to turn on the heat, as in the winter here, in the mountains it is cold. Two dogs live at the villa, and they follow us. Since puppies, they have been attending services like faithful monastics. Doggie beds are near the gas heater and they jump in and cuddle down until the end of the Lauds service. They seem to know instinctively when the service is finished or they understand the word ‘Amen’! As I was singing, I realized, had I been home at the Begijnhof in Belgium, I would be singing Lauds as well. My Belgian sisters were also singing the Lauds service! The week number was the same—monastics singing through all 150 psalms in four weeks. The only difference is the Lauds in Belgium is in Dutch and the Lauds in Italy is in Latin, but the psalms are the same for the very same day. This was a wonderful and warm revelation; all of us monastics were singing together the same psalm at the same time. I wondered how many other convents and monasteries around the world were singing Lauds, a true communion of language and voice of the church to God welcoming the new day. A relative of one of the sisters at Begijnhof is a young brother at a monastery high in the Alps, and they too must be singing Lauds. What a wonderful blessing to be singing praise to God ‘In Communion.’ A hint of heaven.
Obedience is one of the three vows of the monastic — poverty, chastity, and obedience. Obedience is bedrock for a nun. In St Benedict’s rule for monastics, the greatest influence on western monasticism, he states a monastic must, when the superior calls, drop everything and run to do what he asked. It is the call of God on earth! Now, sometimes that takes a form as simple as “Send in a note every Wed, keep silent in this or that hall, or I am sending you to our mission in Italy for three months!”
I was the recipient of the call for three months in Italy, at the villa mission house that is the location of the Mount Tabor Center for Arts and Spirituality. The call was a surprise for me and required a bit of calendar and personal adjustment. But as wise sister friend said to me, “willing or unwilling” you are going. So….here I am for three months, practicing my Italian which was slim to none in the beautiful Italian Apennines. I had signed on for an Italian course in Brugge, as I felt reasonably sure I would return to Italy, but not quite so soon! I wanted to speak a bit of Italian to be able to “buy my bread” as they say. Now I shall learn Italian on the spot in Italy — “Buongiorno, Pasta and Ciao”.
It is the goal of every monastic to be led by the Holy Spirit in both the large decisions and the small activities of daily life, and He is very creative. The Italian Apennines are a lovely view from the villa windows high on the mountain side. The sun peeks out over the mountain in the morning and hides itself at the end of the day. On the rainy days the mountains are wrapped in clouds or the clouds hang in the valley hiding the villages on the valley floor. Tonight a double sunset occurs, only twice a year, and is celebrated by a gathering in the Duomo (church) square at the top of the mountain. We monastics have been invited to sing a Gregorian chant or two on the centuries old steps of the Duomo. The obedience of the monastic includes ever-widening and often surprising blessings.