Ostriches and ducks

There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.
Arthur Conan Doyle

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Mahatma Gandhi

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( two images, one ostrich up close and personal and a female mallard both courtesy the web)

“Faith and Christian witness are presently confronted by such great challenges that only by working together will we be able effectively to serve the human family and enable the light of Christ to reach every dark corner of our hearts and of our world. May the journey of reconciliation and peace between our communities continue to draw us closer, so that, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we may bring life to all, and bring it in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10).

I would now like to turn to my native tongue to express feelings of profound sorrow. Today I read about the execution of those twenty-one or twenty-two Coptic Christians. Their only words were: “Jesus, help me!”. They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians. You, my brother, in your words referred to what is happening in the land of Jesus. The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ. As we recall these brothers and sisters who died only because they confessed Christ, I ask that we encourage each another to go forward with this ecumenism which is giving us strength, the ecumenism of blood. The martyrs belong to all Christians.”

This is an excerpt, courtesy of Vatican Archives, taken from an address given by Pope Francis earlier this week when meeting with members from the (Reformed) Church of Scotland. The Pope ventured away from the agenda at hand in order to offer his concern, outrage, and prayers regarding the beheading of the 21 Coptic Christians at the hands of ISIS.

Before the World could catch its collective breath, ISIS once again carried out another egregious and malicious act of terror and murder this week by publicly taunting then burning alive 45 men from a western town in Iraq—this while the Obama Administration readied themselves to host a summit discussing “extremism”. . .

The definition of extremism, according to Merriam Webster is: advocacy of extreme measures or views : radicalism

The definition of terrorism, according to Merriam Webster is: the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal

The White House has, as has other Western European leaders, yet to acknowledge what the Pope so painfully stated Monday, that the killing of the 21 Copts was an act of violence against Christians.
The White House is also having a rather difficult time calling the violent acts of barbarism what they are—sadistic, callous cold murder carried out by the whims of Islamic Terrorists. They are Islamic and they are terrorists and they wage a jihad in the quest of a Caliphate in the name of Mohammed and Allah. . .

Yet this is not to say that the “Islamic terrorists” speak for or are representational of the Islamic Faithful. The concern however is that other Muslim Nations and Muslim leaders and Muslims in general have merely tried to ignore and distance themselves from the “extremists”. . .With some quietly agreeing that Western Society is indeed partly, if not fully, to blame for the current crises. Unfortunately however the insidious ooze of hate and radicalism is seeping into corners thought to be once off limits and even impenetrable. It appears as if it is in bad form for Muslims to rile against their Muslim kin as it is better to ignore and hope the ugliness will simply go away. . .

A holy war—an oxymoron if ever there was such a thing. A word phrase of extreme opposites in one spoken breath.
Is there such a thing as a “holy war?”—
Yes—but it is of a Divine nature, as the Heavenly Host wages war against Satan and all that is evil and full of darkness. It is what transpired as Jesus descended into Hell, only to rise victorious 3 days later. Yet Satan continues to walk this earth and still works to wield his madness as we remain in the crosshairs, as the earth remains under his dominion—the battle wages, yet the war has been won. . .

And yet it sadly becomes ingrained in the twisted minds of modern man that he can carry out such a “holy war”

The White House urges calm, reminding us not to jump to conclusions or God forbid we insult anyone.
We find ourselves drowning in a sea of political correctness as people are having their heads cut off and are burned alive in cages. We preen and strut in our technological 21st century modernism and pinnacle of civility all the while as thousands of people are tortured and murdered by means of medieval madness–all in the name of a radical religion, hate or simply both. . .the question remains seemingly unanswered.

Why do I feel it is just me who finds this all so terribly troubling? Especially the comment made by ISIS following the beheading of the Coptic Christians that they, ISIS, would now carry their “war” all the way to Rome.

We can choose, like many Muslims, to ignore the current actions of a group of marauding thugs, as it is, who are “over there”. . . We can sit around a large table and talk about if we just create jobs then we could nip this extremism in the bud.
Really??
We can choose to ignore the fact that the very Judeo / Christian foundation that has been the basis of our existence for centuries is truly threatened—that there are those who wish to see it destroyed.

It would be one thing if this was what various leaders, early on, considered to be just a rag tag group of thugs rattling sabers. . .Rather what we are witnessing has startlingly emerged to be a large and spreading cohesive, and well orchestrated, growing group of “radicals” hoping to achieve their Caliphate or that which is actually known as a governing body with direct descending political and religions powers from Mohammed himself. The ideas such as creating jobs for disenfranchised youth around the globe and maintaining overt politically correct terminology in hopes that no one will take offense to our growing alarm or concern will sadly not do one single thing to stop this growing threat to our very way of life.

Two things—may we be mindful that if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck–therefore we may conclude that it is indeed a duck. . .

Also. . . may we never be caught with our heads buried in the sand. . .

Who has whom? A tale of the Spirit

“The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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(The window of the Holy Spirit designed by Lorenzo Bernini , 1660 / St Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican, Rome, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)

My 91 year old godmother called me yesterday.
She is actually my godmother by adoption as she and her husband, my godfather, were not my “official” godparents when I was baptized (Christened as we like to say in the Anglican realm of my world) at the ripe old age of 6 months. I was “adopted” by them when I was about 15 years old—which was a key moment in my life of which I will one day share. And it only seems fitting that as an adopted child, I should have adopted godparents, as even my godfather was adopted. . .but as I say, adoption is for another day.

For 91 years of age, my godmother may appear physically broken of body, but never of spirit.
She is a formidable warrior in the battle of all things Spiritual despite her now stooping and markedly bent frame.

As with anybody who lives on this earth, she too has known her fair share of frustration, hardships, agonies of the heart– as only a mother can, having felt both discouragement as well as despair. Just because one is considered a mighty spiritual warrior or committed to ones faith never exempts that individual from pain, sorrow or suffering. I often believe the exact opposite to be true. That those who are more inclined to the Spiritual find a greater assault of the hard, the negative and the difficult.

Her stories usually follow a convoluted journey with the point sometimes being remembered, sometimes not. Either way, I learn something new every time. Yesterday was certainly no exception as she held true to form throughout our conversation, weaving and wobbling on one trail of thought to another.
I’m not certain how we got on the subject, as is often the case with her.
I merely ask a simple question such as “how are you?” An hour or so later, as we weave our way from present to past and back again, I am often taken to task, reminded of what really matters, humbled or feel as if I’ve been, as Paul on his road to Damascus, knocked from my place only to be put in my place.

Somehow she got on the subject of a man that she and her husband, my godfather, had once known and worked with.
I had often heard my godfather reference this man in his later sermons, sermons near the end of his tenure as the dean of the Cathedral.
The man’s name is David du Plessis. Or maybe I should say was as he died in 1987.
David du Plessis was a South African Pentecostal minister who was eventually made a naturalized citizen of the United States. His story is steeped in a great and abiding trust in a God which would certainly lead him on a very long yet marvelous journey.
I encourage you to read about Rev. du Plessis, as I have now begun to do so. However it would be too lengthy for me to jump on that tangent today.

At some point, I think in the late 1970’s, an ecumenical group in Atlanta consisting of Catholics, Episcopalians and other various protestant members, had asked Rev. du Plessis to come address an important conference. The conference happened to be held at the Cathedral of St Philip, the church where my godfather was the dean.

Not attending the meeting himself but feeling obliged as the head rector of the hosting church, my godfather made his way to find Rev du Plessis before the meeting began, to personally welcome him to the church as well as to introduce himself as the hosting rector.
My godfather was already aware that Rev du Plessis was very active in the Renewal movement that was currently taking place in both the Catholic and Episcopal churches as he was proving to be a key component. Rev du Plessis had actually been invited by the Vatican in 1975 to address an ecumenical council held at St Peter’s in Rome of both Catholic and Anglican renewal groups.

As my godfather introduced himself, he wanted to make certain that Rev du Plessis realized that he, my godfather, was very familiar with the work of the Holy Spirit–going to great lengths to explain that he had been prayed to receive the Spirit as a baby when he was baptized, later when he was confirmed in the church, and still again later when he was ordained as a priest. As most ministers want fellow ministers to understand that they too “get it,” my godfather certainly wanted Rev du Plessis to understand that he too knew all about the Holy Spirit.

Rev du Plessis listened politely then warmly smiled telling my godfather that he had no doubts that my godfather had indeed been prayed over to receive the Holy Spirit into his heart and life but the question was not whether my godfather had the Spirit, but rather did the Spirit have my godfather.
This was the “ah ha” moment for my godfather and a pivotal changing point in not only his role as a priest but most importantly in his life.
A moment that left him speechless, troubled and found him quickly changing the subject.

His assumption had always been that as one who had been prayed for to receive the Spirit of God, the Spirit therefore had entered. . .had He not?

And so I was left yesterday, at the end of the story also wondering–not so much about my godfather as I knew he had eventually gone on to be a leading figure in the Renewal movement in both the Anglican and Catholic communities, not only in Atlanta but worldwide as he too traveled to Rome in 1980 to address a conference under the direction of Pope John Paul II.

But I wondered. . .what about my own dealings with the Spirit?
Did I have the Spirit or did the Spirit have me?
As that is now the nagging question. . .

Greatness is calling

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(photograph: statue of St Peter at the steps leading up to St Peter’s Basilica / The Vatican / Rome, Italy / Julie Cook / 2007)

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter,
“Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said,
“you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep

(NIV John 21:15-17)

There is something very powerful about the man known as Simon bar Jonah that touches a chord deep within my soul. This apostle who was called from the sea. A fisherman by trade. A rough-neck, a hot head. Impulsive and brash. A man who acted before thinking, a man who most likely did not have nor use filters before speaking what came first to mind. A man of very little, if any, patience. A simple man who saw the world in black or white. A man of very little, if any, education. A man who was a deserter, a coward, a liar…the character flaws of this man go on and on and on…. and yet there was another man who was of great importance who saw something of great importance in this simple, rough around the edges, fisherman.

There is hope in all of this as this most broken, most lacking, most flawed of men was chosen–was chosen for a life altering task. Someone great believed in this broken man even when the broken man did not believe in himself. He cowered in the shadows when he was most needed to lead. He was weak. And yet he was tasked with changing the world.

I can certainly identify with the many character flaws of Simon bar Jonah… I am ashamed to admit. That is why I feel a connection with this fisherman….I feel like I know his man. I’ve had my own share of demonstrating less then stellar attributes in front of others, only to wish for a quick rewind, a do-over, or the ability to up and quickly move countries.

Luckily there is hope. Hope in the fact that good can come from not so good. That a dirty old rock pulled from the ground can be cut and polished into something priceless.

He was forgiven, over and over and over again….so that he in turn would understand the importance of doing the same.
He was nurtured and “coached” all along the way… finally to be turned out on his own to set the world on fire. And the world, like it or not, has never been the same. Regardless of whether or not you are a Believer, even your world has been effected…this man altered history.

I sat in a small, dark, damp, cave-like cistern deep within the ground in what was once ancient Rome that was formerly his prison. I saw some relics that tradition claims were chains that held him captive. And I made my way through an ancient, dimly lit alley road way, buried deep within the earth, within the bowels of the Vatican, that led to his skeleton, or more accurately some of his bones, plus or minus a skull depending on who you ask.

He was tried and tested but withstood the trials. To Christians, he is huge, but it is not this hugeness, this larger than life persona, that speaks to me. It is rather the brokenness that speaks to me. I know of my brokenness and flaws and I am thankful and hopeful that there is redemption–

There is, always, thankfully hope. He was asked to feed lambs—and he did.

Today is the first day of school. Teachers are tasked with nurturing lambs (some of the lambs are more like goats with a few wolves hiding out as well)…they wanted to feed the lambs and so they do.

You too have been tasked with something important….something that can and will change lives. Are you cowering in the shadows, or are you being cut and polished? Is there someone who needs for you to believe in them so that they may go out and change the world? Greatness is still waiting to happen but it may not be perceived as Great….brokenness can be mended.

There is always hope, there is always redemption for the brokenness, there is always room to believe in others……Greatness beckons…God is calling… are you listening?

To Rome and Jackie with Love

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
Albert Schweitzer

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(photograph: skyline of Rome looking toward The Vatican,The Janiculum hill/ Julie Cook/ 2007)

Isn’t there something most magical about the Roman skyline?
Particularly the vista that is punctuated by the magnificent dome of Michelangelo’s
engineering genius.
Are you aware that it is Roman law that no building may be built which exceeds the height
of St. Peter’s?
I love Rome, as I’ve written before.
It is a city that is dirty, loud, lurid, raucous, serene, historical, artistic,
trashy, holy and very very real.

I’ve often mused that I could live in Rome…usually, until I step in the mountains of dog poo
which line the sidewalks or when I get a good whiff of the unmistakable stench of human urine
wafting up from the stairways leading down to the Tiber River.

For Rome does have its flaws……

I cannot, however, think about Rome without thinking of a very dear friend.

I lost this dear friend today, Wednesday.
She actually died last night from a lengthy bout with cancer–an ongoing battle that
seems to have plagued her for most of her adult life.

A mutual friend and former colleague called me this morning with the news.
I had been receiving regular texts, as she had been rushed to the hospital
last week and was in ICU.
The texts were from one of her daughters who was updating the progress of her mom…
it seemed she was greatly improving daily…
that is, until yesterday evening.
She was only 78.

She was a colleague, mentor, friend, mother figure and a darn good high school
math teacher.
She was also the mother to two grown girls with families of their own as well as the former
wife of a rather notable Speaker of the House…
a Speaker who shall remain nameless as this is the place today to simply remember my friend.

She had battled colon cancer long before I had ever known her.
Her famous husband, or so the story goes, went to the hospital when she was
in the midst of her struggle with cancer and that of a life-saving surgery,
asking for a divorce.
That was the “hear-say” story, as she was not one to hang out the old dirty laundry—
and we always respected her for such and never asked for any clarification.

She never bashed him, never said a derogatory word, despite having much right to
do so… giving his philandering ways and the years of sacrifice she had made for his
rise in the state then national political picture.
She always respected the fact that he was the father to her children and therefore…
we never talked about him nor of that former life.

It was during those times when this former husband, who would try his hand at national
politics, that her life would be examined as if under a microscope by the press,
again and again.

Despite wearing the title of “ex” wife, she still seemed fair game for political fodder
or so deemed our oh so pious media (please note the sarcasm).
Reporters actually sat outside of school, in the bushes and trees for a shot, even approaching
fellow teachers for a “story”….
As we all did our best to protect her and her privacy.

The news was never flattering of her, describing her as the “ugly” one–
as she was the first of three wives.

How dare they!

She was a real woman, a real lady actually.. not one of those stretched and augmented women
not starched or altered as the many women of Washington are.
She was not a “trophy” to be lead around on a leash as if on show.
She was a beautiful lady.

I often thought of the qualities of Winston Churchill when I thought of my friend.

She was tenacious and fierce if need be—like a mama bear protecting her cubs…always
to the death.
She was like Yoda, a wise sage always full of the wisdom gained by a life lived
long and well.

She had suffered polio as a child, known sorrow and sacrifice as an adult, and
was toughened by the years of hard work… yet in the end, she was never bitter nor sad.
Her body often betrayed her as she battled countless near death illnesses,
yet all the while she managed to have a new trip or adventure in the works while
living life with chemo, radiation, hospital stays, neuropathy and lastly a stroke.

We’d never know when the cancer came back because she never really spoke about it.
She’d just be sick, fight, recover and run to another life adventure.
With skydiving being one of the last big adventures.

It was this friend that taught me to live life like there was no tomorrow—
as she herself never knew if tomorrow was promised to her or not.

It was this dear lady, this dear friend who knew of my love of Italy and
of all things Italian.
It was this friend who knew I had lost my own mom when I was young and who was
now struggling as a young wife, mom, and teacher…

She took it upon herself to befriend me and gently guide me through the often murky
waters of life.
I remember being devastated when she retired.
She was the old guard at school, the wizened sage who kept us younger teachers
in tow.
She made us laugh, think, fight and always do the right thing by our students
and ourselves.

Once she retired, we did not stay in touch as often as I had wished as our paths
simply diverged.
She was now was hanging out with the other retired teachers while traveling profusely—
With Italy being the last big trip…

It was right around the time when Pope John Paul II was quite ill and actually just prior to
his death that she told me she’d bring me a memento back, something about him…for she
knew my deep admiration for the Pope.

All the while she encouraged me to go soon if I could–as she always found
travel to be one of life’s better teachers.
She brought me back a beautiful image of my beloved pope and I did manage to
make that trip a few months following John Paul’s death—
heeding her advice to go—always go…

I’d see her, from time to time, in Target or at the grocery store—
which just so happens to be the last place we actually talked.
Funny how grocery stores are so prominent in our lives.
Those off places where we run into those important folks who seem to pop in and out
of our lives…

She’d often frequented my husband’s business, sending me her “hellos”
via my husband.
Each time she’d come in the store, he’d come home from having seen her
with the latest story of the latest adventure—

After the stroke, I recently sent a card to the rehab center in Atlanta
where she had been moved while working on regaining strength, speech, and mobility.
I told her in my card that here it was, time for me to finally retire,
and off she moves over to Atlanta…
I was all ready to start our travels and would be waiting on her—
for her to get better and for her to be ready to go, once again…

Sadly, it looks as if she went on without me.

Thank you, Jackie, for everything you ever taught me—–
I will miss you.

Holy Week, Fra Angelico and The Convent of San Marco

As we solemnly enter into this most sacred of weeks of our liturgical calendar, I am reminded that this is not only one of the most holy of times for Christians, but with the observance of Passover beginning at sundown this evening, I am aware of the significance that this week has for many of us throughout the world.

As an art teacher and as a person who has spent a great deal of time looking at the relationship that art, in particular painting, has with the surrounding world, I suppose it just makes sense that I should spend this week, this most solemn of weeks, Holy week, looking through that same lens—the lens of art.

I’ve made mention before, in my little “about me” section, that I have a love of Renaissance art, with the emphasis being on the early end of the Renaissance spectrum. Whereas the works of the great masters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Botticelli—–the larger than life Italian masters I love so much— are indeed beautiful to behold with their use of dark and light– chiaroscuro, the use of extreme perspective in relationship to foreshortening, the beautiful depiction of the human body with emphasis on tone and muscle mass, the beautiful layering and translucent application of color—striking and stunning to those of us who view their works today–for me, however, it is the Medieval works of the Middle Ages that best captures my appreciation as well as imagination.

I don’t know if it is because of the strikingly simplistic style, the often austere subject matter or the mere fact that these artists and artisans were doing the best they knew how to do with the limited knowledge of building, perspective, science, travel and medicine of their day. From the precision of the illuminated manuscript to the muraled frescos of a monastery’s wall, my attention is most captivated by this most mysterious time of our human history.

We are discovering that the Dark Ages, as this time is most often referred, is not so dark after all. I think our oh so modern minds feel compelled to consider those who went before us always as “less than.” They are “less than” in their overall wealth of knowledge. We must not be so arrogant in our thinking as it will be, at some unknown point in the future, that another generation will look upon us and our limited knowledge as just that, “less than.” Therefore categorizing us as lacking, limited, ignorant and simple.

There is beauty in the simple as well as in the complex. It is just a matter of how one chooses to “see” what it is one is viewing. If one chooses arrogance for the manner in which to view previous generations, using the current world as the be all to end all gauge, then anything and everything other than the immediate will be “less than. That is unfortunate. The current generation is what it is, in large part, due to the myriad of previous generations. The building of knowledge is scaffolding and layering of first learned, with next learned, continuing on to a continuum of learning.

We have a tendency of looking back on previous generations and their accomplishments with a prejudice based on our current knowledge. That is often a shame as it prevents one from a deep appreciation for the wonders discovered and practiced in such public forums. What appears flat, static and “immature” to us, the modern viewer, was once considered new, vibrant and complicated. It’s all a matter of one’s perspective. It is my hope that as we take this limited look back, and it is important that we do look back, that we will empty our thoughts of our prejudices based on our current knowledge and allow the due appreciation and joy these early builders, painters, sculptors—artists and artisans deserve.

When studying art history most of us have a very small and limited exposure to the actual art we are exploring. So often our exposure is limited to a picture in a textbook, a reproduced poster, a pixilated digital image on a tablet, computer screen, smart board, or television screen. These are basically two-dimensional images of a two dimensional subject. The connection between viewer and, in this case, the artwork, is seemingly one-dimensional—meaning limited. It is all flat and most often the emotion involved is flat.

Every once in a while it is a picture that we view, usually as a child or impressionable learner, which captures the imagination. Perhaps it was an illustration by N.C. Wyeth from the story Treasure Island that drove us on a lifelong quest to one day seek out a tropical beach or to explore the wooden ships of days gone by. Perhaps it was the illustrations of Gustave Doré in Dante’s Inferno, which gave us our most tangible view of Heaven and Hell. For the most part, however, we do not make the emotional connection when viewing a piece of art in such a limited capacity such as that of a book or screen.

I think one of the regrets I have for the way in which we live, often isolated and too busy to know or care otherwise, is that so many of us never have the opportunity of seeing “famous” art work face to face. I can remember standing outside of the Uffizi in Florence just wishing I could have all of my students with me. I thought that if they could just be here, seeing this in real life, it would make a difference. It would affect them, they would be the better for it, it would all make sense, it would move them and they would now understand. They would be the better for it all just as I was for standing there myself—

Art, real art, good art, historical art—it is this which gives us our humanity. Now I know some of you are about to jump in, arguing about art—art for art’s sake, what makes good art good?? This is not that debate—there is no debate here, this is a precursor to looking back. And that is through the eyes of one of the most prolific times of creating art.

And so this was my mindset when I was visiting Florence.

Fienze, as it is known in Italian, is the seat of modern thinking and doing.
Of course some may argue that would actually be Rome, but I’ll argue any day that it is Florence. The birth of the great time period known simply as the Renaissance seems to have sprung forth from the very volcanic ground of the Italian peninsula, which birthed the snakelike Apennine mountains range, the Italian backbone, as well as the headwaters of the Arno River. The irregular and non-navigational Arno, which flows through this enlightened city with its very own fickled Italian ways and its own buried secrets. From the business and banking magnates of the de’ Medici dynasty which helped to create an economically rich location drawing people to this fast growing powerhouse of cities, to the religious and political reformer Girolama Savonarola and his bon fires of the vanities, Florence’s history is a rich as it’s gifts.

And so it was on my 2nd trip to Florence when I was enveloped in just a small thread of the rich tapestry that is known as Florence. There is a small Museum that sits on the northern end of the city. This museum is within walking distance of the famed Academia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s massive and beautiful David, as well as the Uffizi– albeit a bit of a haul down to this most famous of Florence’s museum located near the Piazza della Signoria. However it is this particular small and unassuming museum which was first a convent/ monastery, home to a group of Dominican monks, that draws my attention. The Museum of San Marco.

It’s setting is still that of a monastery/convent—two interchangeable words for a cloistered religious group of either monks or nuns—San Marco is quiet and lacking the throngs of tourists that flood the more well known museums in this city of museums. There is a peace that prevails the grounds of this once holy site. The area in front of the museum is semi-park like with benches and shade trees. Upon entering the simple, unadorned museum/monastery, if it is summer, one is greeted with a sudden change in temperature. There is a welcomed coolness in the air. Florence, in the summer months can be a humid sauna where just the mere act of breathing becomes difficult. Couple that with the influx of thousands of tourists, jostling for space and air, a place like San Marco is a required respite.

There is a reverence felt within San Marco. I suppose that is because when entering you are suddenly transported to the time when this was a cloistered convent. The monks entered and most likely never left the grounds until their death. I don’t think much has changed to this cloistered edifice since it first became a Dominican convent in 1438. My understanding is that there have been some structural changes and modifications over the years—the opening of ceilings and windows, but over all, it remains as a simple and honest claim to its inception.

The “Glory” which brings one to visit San Marco is not it’s historical presence in this historical city. It is not the simplistic beauty, which calls one to come detoxify from the drowning seas of tourists or the sweltering heat. It is, however, the beauty of what enriches the otherwise barren walls of this convent, which draws the curious, art patron and pilgrim a like.

When I travel, I like to consider myself more of a pilgrim rather than a tourist. I travel seeking the reasons for the beginnings, the reasons of importance, always with an eye gleaned toward the sacred and the holy to wherever it is I may be wandering. I travel with a sense of purpose—to understand, to appreciate. I hope to be made better by the journey. I still may take pictures, head to the big sites, eat the good food, but it is the hidden that I constantly seek. I have never lived my life on the mere surface. I sink down. There comes responsibility and a heavy graveness to living so deeply—it can be burdensome and overwhelming, at times depressing, but it is a life worth living as it provides glimpses of the Divine in an otherwise overt secular world.

Upon entering the “museum” there is a small enclosed garden. Guests will see a small chapel area on their left with the first of what visitors come to see—the frescoed paintings of Fra Angelico. Fra Angelico translates to “angelic brother.” This is a name that he was given most likely after his death as an honor to the type of life he lived. He is also known as Beato Angelico or “blessed angel.” He has long been called Blessed but it was in 1984 when Pope John Paul II officially recognized Angelico as “Blessed”—meaning he could be venerated or recognized as truly virtuous. The name he chose, however, when he took his vows and was consecrated to his order and to his faith was Giovanni.

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Fra Angelico was born, in what historians believe to be, 1390 in an area north of Florence. His given name was Guido di Pietro. He was an artist but also a Dominican friar. He most likely began his artist endeavors as a young apprentice working along side his brother, also an artist and monk.

Vasari, a renowned artist in his own right, but best known for his biographies of the Italian Renaissance Artists, wrote that Fra Angelico was “a simple but most holy man.” He stated that it was Fra Angelico’s belief that one could not paint Christ unless the artist was, himself, Christ like. Before beginning each painting, Fra Angelico would devote himself to prayer.

Visitors to San Marco’s enter the main building where the “cells” of the individual monks are located as well as the sacristy, dinning hall, and library. There is a small area also dedicated to illuminated manuscripts, which are on display under protective glass.

As I climbed the steps up to the 2nd level, where the monk’s cells are located, I was immediately reminded that it was the middle of summer in Florence, Italy. The air was almost stagnant. Suddenly I stop climbing the stairs as I see something that I have seen numerous times before. It is large, larger than I imagined, the colors are soft yet very strong. A sheet of glass protects it. Her body is that of a shy demure girl. The angel who stands before her, Gods’ messenger, kneels before who he knows to be that of the future mother of God.

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The Painting of the Annunciation by Fra Angelico greets all those who climb the stairs to the 2nd floor just as it did hundreds of years ago when the monks would climb these same stairs in order to retire to their individual cells. Mary and the angel, Gabriel, are positioned in a garden and logia–an area that looks strangely familiar. It is the grounds of San Marco.

As I make my way around the hall there are approximately 45 cells—some cells are along the exterior walls and the others make up the interior wall. The cells are small rooms; some have windows, the cells along the inside wall do not. I can only imagine the bitter winter cold, as the summer heat is proving unbearable. It is however what is painted on a single wall within each cell that draws the visitor to imagine a monk’s time spent in the lonely spartan cell.

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There are paintings of the Crucifixion, the mocking of Christ, the Deposition, the Resurrection, as well as the Nativity, along with the Baptism of Jesus. Various saints, such as Saints Augustine, and Dominic are depicted in many of the paintings. Mary the Magdalene, Mary, Jesus’ mother and Martha are also present in many of the frescos. The frescos were to provide a focus of meditation and reflection, as well as for a bit of comfort, for each monk. The often windowless “cell”, with most likely only a small mat for sleeping, has no other distraction or comfort. A monk’s primary task is that of prayer, contemplation and reflection of the Divine.

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Fra Angelico did eventually venture out from this monastery, painting other significant works with one of those being located within the cavernous Vatican. In the small private chapel for Pope Nicholas V, frescos of the lives of Saints Stephen and Lawrence, adorn the walls. Whereas the message is a bit different from those frescos found on the walls at San Marco, there is no denying the quiet beauty and style of the mystical artist Fra Angelico.

I wish that it was possible for all of us to travel, at will, visiting the places scattered throughout the world where the treasures and masterpieces, as well as the forgotten or the private, pieces of art lurk and dwell. To behold an altarpiece, a painting, a fresco, a statue face to face, eyeball to eyeball, verses a mere printed image in a book or elsewhere—is, for some, life changing, for others, inspirational—only leading to even greater visions.

On this particular day, in a place a world away from my own life, I am confronted with a historical moment captured in time, on a wall, in a convent that was originally intended as a reminder for a simple monk. It is on this day that I become that simple monk, as I am reminded of a brief encounter that would change the world and would also change me, forever.

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Rome, Wine and a wee bit of Incontinence

One of my most favorite cities in the world is Rome. I know, I can hear the reverberations of the “are you kidding me”, “are you crazy”, and “anywhere but there”!!
But it is true. I love Rome. Roma. Maybe it harkens back to the whole Sophia Loren love child incident (see the post an Ironic memorial—and yes I know she is Neapolitan, but Italian she is) or the whole adoption issue (see the post Sylvia Kay and yes, adoption gets its mileage worth of blame ☺)

It is a huge city. A noisy city. A dirty city. A crowded city. A very chaotic city. And no, I don’t think one can apply organized chaos to Rome, but I love it just the same. From the animated residents; the name calling, the shouting, the finger gestures, the kissing, the gesticulations of hands and arms as intense conversations abound….—to the wafting aroma of garlic and basil wending throughout the labyrinths of nooks and alleyways in the summer, to the darting vespers that are indeed like annoying wasps….I love it all.

I have been to Rome 4 times throughout my life with the longest visit lasting almost 3 weeks. Never enough time. But I have been known to tire and cut the visit short. I blame it on sensory overload. Rome will do that to a person. Sights, smells, sounds, touching, feeling…it has it all—in tremendous excess. A glorious amount of excess.

For all of its tremendous history, the birthplace of republic governments, it is today, a bit rough around the edges. It is no Paris—the epitome of refinement and decorum. No, Rome is explosive with emotion—good and bad. And I love it all.

There is one trip in particular that stands out in my memory—it was the summer following the death of Pope John Paul II. I had mourned his death so very much that Spring. I, along with an entire world, had watched the once energetic and vibrant Pope slip into frail old age and gracefully leave us. If you read my post on the Passport fiasco you remember that my passport at the time was not up to date and I could not personally go to say “good-bye”.

It was the intense attention on Rome that Spring which got my dad to thinking. My son, at the time, was 15 and Dad thought that while he was still able, he’d like to take my son, his only grandchild, on a special trip. He and my step-mom got my aunt and me in the bargain as well. And somehow, for some reason, Rome seemed to be the point of destination. Wonder where he got that idea 🙂

The trip was a comedy of errors to be sure. My dad at the time was still “walking” if that is what you call a snail’s pace shuffle. My son, a ball of adolescent hormones, my step- mom probably wishing she’d stayed home (especially after she tripped over the corner of the Pantheon sending my son to find medical help but more on that later), my aunt, wondering what she was doing hanging out with this odd bunch and then there was me, wondering what’d I’d gotten us all into.

I had gone on line, well before our trip date, and made reservations for us to go on a small, semi-private tour of, what I call, the bowels of the Vatican. You have to request an “opportunity” for the Catacombs underneath the Vatican. You have to list all those in your party, your country of origin, ages, birthdays, language, your place of “residence” while in Rome, phone numbers, etc. Submit the form and hope you’re accepted. This trip, we were lucky. We had to show up at the left side gate to St. Peter’s at a specified time—if you’re late at all, you can forget the trip. We were to print off the “ticket acceptance” and show it to the Swiss Guard at the gate.

It was our first full day in Rome. We were staying but a few streets over from the Vatican. I knew that my son needed to wear long pants when we went to St. Peters just as my aunt, my step-mom and myself needed to have shoulders covered. I knew this. But it was mid July. Rome in mid-July is a sauna. The temperature was in the upper 90s our entire time in Italy. It was hot and it was humid.

That morning, worrying about getting all of us up, fed and out the hotel door, making certain that my snail father would/could keep a quick step as we huffed our way to the Vatican, it totally slipped past my stressed mind that my son had put on shorts—long shorts mind you, but shorts just the same.

We arrive at the left gate right on time. I feel so proud to be able to walk past the myriad of people, right up to a soldier of another time, and present my “golden ticket”. It was as if I had an appointment to see the Pope. In reality, it was a ticket to basically tour the basement, but to me, it was a moment in time that stood still.

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The guard looked at the ticket, checked our passports and stepped aside allowing us to pass into a different dimension in time. Next we had to go to the office for the Catacombs. I’m just about to explode, I’m so excited and in total awe of this most surreal moment. Suddenly, without warning, jolted back to reality, the lady at the desk looks at my son, looks at me, and in Italian, proceeds to tell me NO!

“What?!” “What do you mean NO?!” “Your son is wearing shorts. Panic sets in and I suddenly think I’m going to be sick. There is no time to run back to the hotel. There is no time to find a store. NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
But by what I like to think was Divine intervention– the lady decides my son must be only 10 years old– she allows the long shorts. Thank God for his latent growth hormones! Our tour director greets us and immediately admonishes me for the shorts. I hang my head and acknowledge the faux paux and promise to say a multitude of Hail Mary’s (I’m not Catholic but at this point I’ll do anything for anyone!)

We enter into the area of the Pope’s tombs by a side door. We slip past the tourists viewing the beautiful array of tombs and sarcophagi. We descend down and down—leaving behind the crowds of tourists, down past the tombs of century’s worth of popes. Down to where the air is cool and the light is dim. The sounds of the massive numbers of tourist above us, up in St. Peters, is but a muffled breath. We find ourselves suddenly in a maze of stone and dirt alleyways. Niches line the walls, some are open, bodiless, while others are still sealed and marked with various designs—our guide points out that some of the symbols are pagan and some Christian. Some of the niches are marked by ash and charcoal—thousands of years old ash and charcoal that looks as if someone just took a burnt piece of charcoal out of a grill and smeared it on the wall—amazing!

The alleyway opens and several elaborate “rooms” come into view. These were burial sites for families who had money. Mosaic tiles, still beautifully brilliant and colorful cover the floors as elaborate paintings grace the walls. Names are etched into the walls informing all who pass by, of whom, what family, is buried here and there. I am simply amazed.

We wend our way to the end of the excavation of the catacombs. The culmination of research and digging—the culmination of those of us who are the “pilgrims of the basement” has appeared before us. It is the tomb of Saint Peter. A heavy hush falls over all of us. The sheer magnitude of what we are seeing, what we are standing before is almost impossible to process.

There are extensive stories about the tomb of St. Peter. Why the basilica is built where it is built. It’s proximity to the Circus of Nero. The existence of St. Peter’s tomb and how the many little shrines came into being, eventually growing into what we see today as St. Peter’s Basilica– two thousand years in the making is a story worth investigating. I will leave that to the history books but you should take some time to read about the history of the Basilica, as it is most fascinating.

Our tour guide tells us of the “hallowed” ground on which we stand and that we should all take a moment of silence for prayer and/ or reflection. We are all in awe; there are 4 other people with us besides my family. There are tears and such tremendous reverence that the air is almost heavy and difficult to breath– this important moment is suddenly broken by my father who begins having one of his oh so famous coughing attacks. He fumbles for a cough drop…the sound of his tearing into the cellophane wrapper of the cough drop, reverberating off this cave like area, absolutely crushes the moment for us all. Embarrassing. First the shorts, and now my dad, who is obviously not impressed by a stack of bones in a cave….. UGH…

Part II of the Vatican:
I did manage to pack two small American flags. My son and I carried these with us to the tomb of John Paul II. It was before they had his tomb complete so he was interned in a temporary grave in St. Peters. The line was long but we waited our turn. As we approached his tomb, there were many kneeling. The guards were doing their best moving along the crowd. I asked, or actually gestured, if we might be able to place our flags on the tomb. He nods. Ours were the only two American flags amongst as sea of flowers and flags. I felt happy.

I won’t go into the Coliseum in 100-degree heat. I won’t go into the day trip down to Naples and Pompeii—gawking a poor people frozen in time, in the moment of a horrific death, certainly not my cup of tea but oddly Dad thinks this is great. The 3-day trip to Florence is for another post as I met and made a life long friend there in Florence. A sister soul mate I was so fortunate to find…..

As I told you we were staying near the Vatican. We spent a good bit of time walking up and down the Borgo Pio. A really touristy strip until you make your way down towards the end of the street, away from the Vatican. Two special things happened to us on this street.

We wandered into a small store. Grazie a Cielo. It was an artist co-op of sorts. There was a kind priest/padre working the store. It was so hot that he had his collar unbuttoned and the sweat poured down his face. The artwork was done from various missions throughout the world. Christmas ornaments, wooden carvings, rosaries of every size and description, etc .,with all proceeds going back to the various missions.

We attempted talking with the priest but he spoke no English and we spoke no Italian. It is amazing, however, how we did manage to communicate. There is a great deal to be said for tone and gestures. His name was Padre Andrea. He was greatly moved when he realized that my son was buying all of his friends back home small rosaries. My son asked Padre Andrea to please bless the rosaries. Without understanding one another’s language, however, we could join together in prayer—so universal. He blessed the rosaries and he blessed my son. I was greatly moved.

Further down the street we found a wonderful restaurant. Normally the Borgo Pio is not a place one wants to eat. The top end of the street, closest to the Vatican, is crowded with cheap tourist traps. However, down on the opposite end of this ancient of streets, is one of my most favorite restaurants in the entire world. Il Papalino. It is home to the best waiter I have ever known—Antonio. Antonio is my age, mid 50s and he’s worked at Il Papalino for almost 28 years, his entire working career at this one restaurant. He took such good care of us. He is shy and unassuming yet flits about taking care of the throngs of diners with steely precision.

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Every time I’ve been back to Rome, I make a beeline for Il Papalino and my dear Antonio. He always remembers me and asks “how is the boy who loves Coca Cola” (my son). In the evenings, once the throngs of tourists have departed the area, the street, becomes a family atmosphere as the local residents come out to walk their dogs and push strollers full of children. Everyone seems to know one another as the locals come to eat, drink and laugh together. Antonio knows them all …but he also knows me. That makes me happy.

There are the morning walks down by the Tiber. As one descends the stairs, which leads down to the river walkway, there is no mistaking the stench of human urine that rises to hit those wishing to walk or run by the river, smack in the face. Rome has a large homeless population. I have seen more than my share of human and animal waste on the sidewalks, as well as people popping up out of dumpsters. Dumpsters, whose stench marks their presence long before they are seen. These dumpster divers are carrying discarded watermelon rinds.

I don’t think there is anything that is not covered in graffiti in Rome. When you first arrive in Rome you are overwhelmed with the graffiti, appalled that this most ancient of cities is so shamelessly defaced. However, after a few short hours in town, it all seems to meld into the massive mix of chaos known as Rome.

The history, the art, the monuments are all an amalgamation of Roman, Christian, Pagan, Renaissance wonders—a plethora for the senses…to realize that one is walking on the ground that Julius Creaser, Marc Anthony, saints Paul, Peter all traversed…it is difficult to comprehend.

There is, however, one most special “monument” that many tourists may miss. It is found up the steps at the far end of the Forum and the Capitoline hill. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d never know it was there. The Mamertime Prison. It is located on what is the side of a church.

It is in this ancient, old, cave-like cistern prison, which once housed the criminals of Rome, as well as the political prisoners. Political prisoners such as saints Peter and Paul. It is believed that Paul was actually held here just prior to his execution and that perhaps Peter had been here on several occasions. In 90 degree plus heat, it is a nice respite allowing time to sit for a quiet moment. But then the enormity of the fact that I was sitting on a carved out outcropping in the wall, the very area that Paul and Peter most likely sat/ slept overwhelmed my heart. It is from the cistern and spring, that it is still very much full of water, that Peter used to baptize the guards and fellow prisoners. It is dark, damp and very cave like. It is hard imagining a worse place to be held before one’s execution.

The most memorable of events, however, during this “family” trip was not a grand monument or museum. Nor was it the fact that I had had too much wine to drink this particular evening—it was rather that I should have visited the “ladies room” at the restaurant before we decide to walk back to the hotel.

We had had dinner at Il Papilino. It was a marvelous meal of Sea Bass, prepared tableside, complete with several bottles of good Roman Wine. We decided that Dad could walk the short distance through the alleyway, which connected the Borgo Pio to the street where our hotel was located rather than the hassle of a cab. Now mind you that while we were in Rome I felt perfectly safe. I felt safer in Rome then I have ever felt in my hometown of Atlanta. I have always felt safe in Rome, even when I was traveling with just one other female friend…no worries. My dad however, is old school and is not as Que sera sera as I tend to be.

My aunt and I are strolling along, full of good food and wine, listening to my step-mom retelling some marvelous story. My snail like father lags far behind and my son is hanging back with “Pops”. It is a perfect night… Rome, family, history, and magic. A group of young people is behind us, laughing holding hands, all equally satiated with the magical evening… We are all just using the alleyway to cut through to the other street.
No worries.

Suddenly, we see my father darting past us as if he has been shot out of a starting block for the race of his life–my son in hot pursuit. My dad, it seems, has decided that these kids behind us are a group of hooligans—which they aren’t but you couldn’t tell this Octogenarian any different. He’s mad that we wont hurry along and decides to leave us eating his dust.

The insanity of what we were witnessing, an 80-year-old racing as if his life depended on it, followed by his 15-year-old grandson, fussing that the women would not “wise up” to the lurking danger from behind, was more than we could contain.
The 3 of us burst out laughing. And we continued laughing—belly laughing. Doubled over laughing. It was just a priceless spectacle to behold. You have to know my dad—Mr. Mole as we call him.

Do you know what happens to ladies of a particular age when they have consumed a great deal of liquid and have not been to the ladies room for a while? I was wearing a black sheaf dress and black sandals…suddenly there is a trickle. I’m laughing so hard and now telling my cohorts that things are about to get serious. They can’t believe it and are laughing as well at my plight when my aunt suddenly finds herself in the same predicament. Now there are two ladies laughing with trickles. I could take you to that very street corner in Rome to this day, the street corner I baptized with back-up help from my aunt. Needless to say, we threw those shoes away as they were a bit soggy once we got back to the hotel ☺

I have so many stories of Rome—too many to attempt to recall here. But may it be known that I love Rome. And obviously I fit right in.