Pre-Lenten Reflections: Road to Assisi, Part I

It seems fitting, according to the overriding theme of my life’s pilgrim journey, that I should begin my personal weekend retreat to Assisi by waiting alone for two hours in an ugly train station. Particularly when I should be on my train now, but – due to my ever increasing forgetfulness these days – I forgot to validate my ticket, and as a result was politely asked to exit at the next station (it was, ironically, this increasing scatterbrainedness that motivated me – with the disconcertingly emphatic support of my boss – to take the day off in the first place). Having sought the conductor the moment I realized my mistake, I was, thankfully, spared both the patronizing lecture and the 50 euro fine. But booted from the train I was, nevertheless. I rather mourn the days when I could talk my way out of such messes, with big clueless American eyes and endearingly pathetic Italian. Unfortunately for me, my capacity for the language – while far from where it should be – has become good enough to make it clear to the authorities that I have been living in Italy quite long enough to know better.

With one more hour to wait, and nothing to stare at but, well, an ugly train station, I’m consoled by the fact that most of my truly rich spiritual pilgrimages have a habit of beginning in places that are as paradoxically filthy as they are sterile. It was last Holy Thursday (coincidentally April 1), for instance, that I went to the Questura for my Permesso di Soggiorno appointment. The entire day consisted of trains, metros, and the ugliest, most dilapidated neighborhoods of Rome that are so industrial, so barren, so far from its holy center that one could hardly believe them to be part of the Eternal City; the irony of the fact that April Fool’s Day corresponded with my spending one of the Church’s holiest days in an area of the city devoid of any symbol of faith did not escape me. After a long, dirty, spiritually barren day, I finally returned to the real Rome, now after dark, to catch whatever seven Churches I could find, in order to venerate the chapels where the Blessed Sacrament had been reposed in a beautifully decorated throne, per the ancient tradition. In spite of the loneliness of that day, nothing can compare to the profound poignancy of finding one Church after another, each gloriously and tenderly decking its Eucharistic alter in flowers and gold, in the knowledge that the following day would see the ignoble yet Salvific death of the One who was enthroned therein.

There is something about the barren darkness that makes one see the Source of the Light in its most deeply intimate beauty. It is of this, (if I may digress for a moment), that John of the Cross speaks in his poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” in which he compares the sense of God’s absence to a young maid secretly seeking her lover in the dead of night, with no light to guide her but the love she feels in her heart:

Oh night thou was my guide,

Oh night more loving than the rising sun!

Oh night that joined the lover to the beloved one,

Transforming each of them into the other.

(per the interpretation of Lorenna McKennit)

In His mysterious mercy, (if I may continue the digression) God has created an unexpected union between human sin and the loving tenderness of the dark night of the soul. When we fall in love with God, we do not become magically immune from sinning. Neither does love of God mean that, when we do sin, we love Him any less (we are, after all, still quite concupiscenced, and will remain so until the end). Rather, the only real difference between someone who has fallen in love with God and someone who has not is that the one in love feels their sins more keenly, for they recognize sin as an offence against their lover. “What puts the real twist into our hearts after our faults and small betrayals of grace” says the Poor Clare Sister Mary Francis, “but the aching knowledge that God loves us so tenderly and that we continue to disappoint and snub His love?” In this way, sin becomes, in an odd and unconventional way, a grace, for it sends us running back to Him for forgiveness, instead of laughing benignly at an indiscretion that, in our minds, harms only ourselves and offends no other. Within the heart of God, sin is transformed into a dark night of the soul, purifying and even strengthening the union between God and the one He loves.

- - -

Happily (and legally!) on the train now. With my luck, today will be one of the days when the conductor decides to not check for passenger tickets. I has also occurred to me that my cell phone is about to run out of battery, necessitating me to keep it off in order to save it for emergencies. God is putting His own hand into forming the course of my retreat, it seems. It’s just as well that He does; I’m terrible when it comes to organizing such things.

- - -

I finally landed in Assisi, a tad later than I had intended, but nonetheless happy. After settling into my room (in the “new” city, right next to basilica), I stepped out into the piazza and felt . . . freedom. There is nothing like taking a pilgrimage on your own, and Assisi holds a significance for me that no other city on earth can claim. The little house located inside the great basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, where St. Francis first cut the golden hair of the exquisite St. Clare and exchanged her queenly silks for rags, marks the centuries-long chain of events that led to my own sister entering the cloister Poor Clare Monastery. This fact implies many things, one of which being I will only be allowed to hug my sister one more time before she dies: that will be on the 25th anniversary of her “simple” vows (I have fifteen years to go). Yet, in being part of this sacrifice I cannot help but feel bound to something ancient, for my sister’s decision to enclose herself forever into a monastery is a sacrifice that has been nearly 800 years in the making, beginning on that clandestine night when Assisi’s most noble and lovely girl escaped her father’s house to espouse herself to God. Through my sister, I cannot help but find myself indelibly bound to a vast Franciscan family that can, with aristocratic pride, claim the noble Francis and Clare as its parents.

Goodnight, my dearest Assisi. I will see you in the morning.

(P.S. And for the record, the conductor did check our tickets in the end. Don’t forget to validate, folks!)

Pre-Lenten Reflections: Preparing for the Mercy of God

Any excuse to begin an article with a quote from Miss O'Connor . . .

"Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought him self a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no Sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise."

~ Flannery O'Connor, "The Artificial Nigger"

Why are we, at times, inclined to dwell on our past transgressions? Doing so only leads us to fear the inevitability of our weakness in the future. It is true that all of us suffer from vices that we have not yet overcome, vices that are likely to attack us again and again. And, to be quite frank on the matter, there is a more than fair chance we will fail against our vices many more times before the end.

We must, nevertheless, fear neither the inevitable temptations that we have yet to confront, nor the sins that we have yet to commit. Through the teachings of the Church and the wisdom of the saints, we can find rest in the certainty that God will give us all the strength we need to fight temptation. Yet, we still fear our weakness; why? What do our weaknesses matter when we know that, each and every sin of our past and future, be they are graver than all the sins in the world, will be forgiven completely, so long as we ask for it?

Have confidence. His love is fierce, His mercy infinite, and even the greatest sin of our lifetime could never even conceive to withstand the terrible power of His forgiveness. Do not doubt reality of God's love; it is far more real than any human love. Therefore, when sins and human frailty weigh upon you, forget the eyes of the world. Turn, instead, to the heart of God.

Quirks in this here Italian life

I live in a little hobbit hole, and like many hobbit holes, internet access is sporadic at best, if one is lucky enough to have it available at all. Perhaps the hobbit holes of Middle Earth have, by now, advanced to such sophisticated and wildly available technological luxuries as having reliable internet in one’s dwelling, but Italy’s hobbits must still learn survive without such conveniences. Therefore, when my need for internet arises, I am obliged to a tiny little hotspot across the street, thanks to the unprotected network of the small community of nuns who live there. When I say across the street, though, I don’t mean within the confines of the religious community itself. I mean, on the sidewalk. One particular 10 foot area of the sidewalk. Sans anywhere to sit except the ground. It must be admitted at this point that the nuns do not seem to have caught on to what I am doing.

Working as a communications contractor (or head, or officer – we have yet to settle on a satisfactory English translation of my job title), not having ready means of communication with the outside world can create complications, but I’m learning to adjust. Perhaps it is that Italy, with such parents as Francis and Clare, can’t help but bring the Franciscan resourcefulness out of this poor student of communications. This morning, for instance, I conducted my business from the curb and its magical hotspot of internet glory (only what was necessary, mind you, because I do feel a little guilty using a religious community’s internet without their expressed permission for mere pleasure). I had everything I needed: my little netbook, my cell phone, my mug of Dunk’n Donuts Coffee (yes, I drink Dunk’n Donuts Coffee in Italy, and I’m not ashamed!), and my fuzzy slippers. In any case, there I was, happily crouched on the curb like a hobo, touching base with the journalist of one TV station via email, organizing a documentary with another via cell, managing invites to meetings, sipping my Jo, stealing internet from nuns, and being reprimanded by an Italian lady stranger for happily crouching on the ground like a hobo (because, to an Italian, young ladies who sit on the ground, especially in the manner of a hobo, will incur not only a horrific demise upon themselves, but will spread their misfortune throughout all the lands in the form of plague and birth defects and overall destruction of civilization. Coincidentally, it should be noted that going barefoot indoors, going out of doors with wet hair, and drinking ice water and hot coffee at the same time, also have very similar catastrophic consequences).

What else could anyone want outside of the simplicity of life? I am grateful that I am not one of the rich folk, who come here for short periods to see the sites, to drink fine wine and dine in the most authentically famous Italian restaurants. I, rather, am the poor, homeschooled, socially awkward feral child of a miniscule Virginia town, who stumbles my way month after month through a foreign city, trying to make my way in the vast and professional world of communications (in Italian, no less) . . . and I could not be a happier misfit. My endeavors in the world of communications have not yet made me rich, and quite frankly, I’d be rather sad if they did (with the exception of having my debts paid off, that is). There is a glorious color in life’s eccentricity, especially when the eccentricity is naturally occurring, and when it is born of poverty.

For a little American from a backwoods Virginia town, living in this city can be a constant assault of noise, confusion, humiliation, and heartbreak. In order to survive, therefore, it is utterly imperative that one have a love for poverty, a love for the will of God, and a joyfully fierce sense of humor in the face of absurdity.

the vocation

The peace that comes from finding ones vocation (or at the least, when one finds the grace of discernment of a vocation) is like having a sword, dull and wooden as the Cross, plunged into your heart, where it is anchored into the Heart of Jesus. It is in this way that vocation brings peace, for it is anchored firmly in love, the security and safety of being in love.

But what is not foreseen is that an act of love of a Creator entering into and becoming one of his own creation cannot happen but through violence. Instead of bringing earthly peace, the true vocation -- which is the face by which God wins over the heart of his beloved -- opens chasms of torrents and uncertainties, as well as graces and blessings. But, in the grace of vocation, one has eyes to see through the storms the towering pillar that is the love of God.

A Lenten thought or two for the Pontifical student . . .

“I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
Matthew 10:34

“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.”
–C. S. Lewis

The lay Pontifical student’s life in Rome is woven with more questions than our veins are with cappuccinos. When did I become more comfortable with men in collars than with men who have not taken a vow of celibacy? Have I fulfilled my “humiliating-moments-in-the-Italian-language” quota for the week? Why does the small chapel in our library smell never of incense, but always of apples? Was the reason some saints had the gift of bilocation so that they could make it to all of their pontifical classes? Why is night the only time when Rome becomes truly radiant? What is the sad story of the widowed barrister who works in the local bar, where coincidentally one can find the best coffee in all of Rome?

And what on earth was God thinking when He called me here?

The reality of living in this city cannot be condensed into classes, language, delicious food, beautiful architecture, and the historical and tangible affirmation of our Faith, all neatly and benignly suspended about us. Rather, these elements, along with our passions, our insecurities, our talents, our friendships, our love for our families back home, and everything that makes us who we are, clash into one another at every moment with a celestial violence that leaves all of the pieces lying in ruins at our feet.

Yet, such is ultimately the destiny for all of us, whether we live in the Eternal City or the backwoods of West Virginia. It is not enough to simply acquire accurate knowledge and good habits; these alone, while giving us means by which to identify truth and to follow the motions laid out by it, simply do not have what it takes to lead us all the way to the very heart of the matter. True fulfillment of our humanity comes, rather, by surrendering ourselves to the reality that Redemption demands that we must first be devastatingly destroyed. It is not simply a purification of our poor habits and worldly attachments; it is an actual death to ourselves, our entire selves. The calling to take up the Cross is not only a call to suffer; it is a call to die, for it is only through death that we can become who we truly are. “Love, as mortals understand it, isn’t enough,” says C.S. Lewis. “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country; but none will rise again until it has been buried.”

But though, in the process of being rebuilt, we feel the pain of the nails being driven in, and our beams pulled apart, those of us who are called to be pilgrims in this city are surrounded by constant reminders that what we are being reconstructed into is a palace for our Father to live in. This is the special gift of being called to live in Rome, for here is the only city on earth where we fully witness the majesty of our faith in such a way as to not only give us courage to strive for Heaven, but more importantly, joy in the knowledge of what is waiting for us when we get there.


let us not now wake the sleeping hours that with mountains into this valley break. let the faltering woods that crowd our souls from the One who sees through the ashes burn. until this child of ebony seeks a fallen grace, yet fallen but redeemed. I've left all things, but You are not here; forgotten by my foolish pride, yet stand You there, to weep.

I little something that I wrote many years ago . . .

The life of Job

One of the greatest snares to one's life is a false trust in Providence, in which we believe that He is taking care of us on the basis that things are going right and well in our lives. But actual trust must transcend this. The fact that things sometimes fall into place, it is true, is a testament of God's love, and His desire for us to be as happy as possible in this life, so long as that happiness poses no threat to eternal life. Yet, real trust in God must prevail when things go rather badly, maybe even rather terribly. Because the greatest happiness for which all events in life lead us to is beyond this world; if God takes away all semblance of earthly happiness, it is not because He doesn't desire our temporal happiness, but it is because there is some hindrance in our lives that is a detriment to an unimaginable eternal joy. This hindrance may come from us, or it may come from something completely out of our control.

God does not desire suffering on this earth that we may obtain happiness in the next. He allows suffering to help us see, but He does not desire to see us suffer, and would have us suffer as little as possible.

God does not redeem us through the evils of the world. He redeems us in spite of them.