Saturday, August 25, 2012

A quick hop to Tuscany, anticipating the end!

Third and fourth weeks in Assisi

***  Ok folks, I have been trying my darnedest to get all caught up on these posts.  But as my high school literature teacher used to say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  I've had some frustrating trouble with my camera (thankfully, I've finally been able to get my pictures off of it) and frankly I don't want to be in delay mode any longer.  So my last two weeks in Assisi will be combined into one post.  And I'm back in Rome now as of Wednesday evening, so regular orientation has begun (which means full schedules again)!  Gotta keep it skippy so you can still be with me while all this is fresh in my mind.  Thanks for understanding!  ***

As I spend more and more time in this city, I have noticed a few emerging patterns.  The first pattern is that the church bells around Assisi seem to be ringing ALL the time.  Many will ring on the hour, sometimes they just start ringing randomly.  The 700 year old bell tower in the Piazza Communale will cordially remind us of the current time every fifteen minutes, beginning each day at 7 a.m. and continuing uninterrupted until 11 p.m.  Low strikes for the hour-hand and high strikes for the which-quarter-hour-is-it-now-hand.  And twice a day­—once at 8 in the morning and the other at 10 at night—this same tower will strike its large bell 45 times in quick succession.  Nobody knows why.  Well let me rephrase, everyone we've asked seems to know why, but we've never gotten the same answer twice lol.

The second pattern is that standing around in a public place makes you look more official, and there is a greater chance someone will come to ask you for directions.  It's happened to me twice, the first time I couldn't understand these two people because they spoke Italian too fast.  Eventually they had mercy and spoke to me in English, so I was able to give them directions to the Rocca Maggiore.  But the second time!  The second time it was an English-speaking pilgrim wanting to get to San Francesco.  They must have thought I was Italian because they asked for directions in broken Italian.  Psshhh, you know it.  I gave them directions in Italian, and afterward gave myself a little fist pump for blending in so well.

The Italian classes have been going well but they are still often a game of patience.  The classroom learning is not too difficult, and usually the concepts make easy sense to me since most of them are analogous to Spanish.  But building vocabulary and an ability to hear colloquial Italian as well as speak it back have been really slow going.  In the scheme of things, obviously I won't learn a language in three weeks.  But it would just make life so much easier!  Alas, it is a long and measured road.

The four weeks we are here in Assisi include several exciting celebrations.  Besides the Pardon of Assisi, we also had big celebrations for the Feast of St. Lawrence on the 10th, the Feast of St. Clare on the 11th, and the Feast of St. Rufino on the 12th.  Lots o' party round here, especially in the main piazza, including multiple processions through the streets, as well as celebrations of the Mass by various bishops and cardinals that come into town for these feasts.  What I love most about this, besides all the fun, is that I can walk up the hill at the end of the night and go to bed in peace at the Casa.

My brothers down in the hotel are about 100 yards from the piazza, and so with all the music and commotion they don't get to sleep until the party stops.  Unfortunately, some of those dancing, singing people are Tedeschi ragazzi (German young people) who are staying at the hotel, and who continue their high school funnery back at the hotel afterward.  Tragic?  Frustrating?  Probs.  But if nothing else, just think, this penance will expedite their salvation one day (read: Thank God my sleep-loving 'donkey' is not down there).

A short story about St. Lawrence though.  We were complaining all week about the blazing Roman weather that has found us here in Assisi and decided to stick around.  It finally broke for about one and a half days, and we had a beautiful 80 degree day on the 10th.  On Monday in class we casually mentioned our joy at one day of relief and found out that we apparently missed the inside joke.  Every Italian knows (or I guess, at least everyone in Assisi knows) that it wasn't any coincidence, but is a customary weather pattern that happens every year on that day.

As you already know from one of my previous posts, St. Lawrence was martyred by being grilled alive.  It is said that Lawrence exacts his revenge each year by scorching the Romans in unusually warm heat during the days leading up to the feast of his martyrdom.  But on his feast day, August the 10th, the hot weather will finally defer to mercifully cooler temperatures.  I will say this, if St. Lawrence really has taken a job as a weatherman in heaven, then I'd like to make a request to the Holy Father that we begin celebrating not just the feast day but the feast month of St. Lawrence each August.  That would be A+.

On Friday night I got in a car and rode about ten minutes out of town to play a little soccer under the lights with some Franciscan friars.  I was invited by a young Franciscan priest in my Italian class.  Six of us seminarians went, and six Franciscans brothers took us, in two teeny manual drive hatchbacks.  Four dudes in the back seat is not recommendable for long drives, for those who ever need to contemplate a decision like this one day.  It was a lot of fun though, we played until quarter after 11 when the lights turned off.  Exhausted, but after a cold shower back at the Casa, I fell right to sleep!

Saturday I took a short day trip to the small town of Cortona, which is just inside the region of Tuscany about an hour train ride northwest of Assisi.  It is relatively near Lake Trasimeno, which is one of the largest lakes in Italy (maybe the largest? Not sure).  I went with my good friend Kyle; it was actually his idea since he had been there a few years previous.

We bought some freshly made Panini's on our way out of Assisi from our favorite shop owner, Gus.  He is well known amongst the seminarians who do their studies each year here.  I also bought a 1.5 liter bottle of what I thought was orange juice.  To my dismay, opening the bottle told me I had bought orange pop instead.  Blast.  I convinced myself it was really just orange juice with carbonation, and this helped me to justify drinking so much of it throughout the day.

Cortona is a small hill town like Assisi, it has a few beautiful churches and a basilica at the top of town dedicated to St. Margaret of Cortona.  St. Margaret was a 13th century saint born about 20 years after St. Francis died.

She was a third order Franciscan and established a hospital to help the poor and the sick of Cortona.  She died in the church of St. Basil at the top of the city, which was then in bad repair, and was buried there.  After her death, the church was rebuilt larger and more beautifully and rededicated under her own name.  She is an incorrupt saint, which means her body has not decayed like it otherwise should.

Town square, complete with large Back to the Future-esque clock.  Ready for 1.21 gigawatts of lightning!

Fountain at the park on the east side of town.  Each sculpture is of a girl grabbing the head of an eel-ish animal that has a fish head, while it's wrapped around her pulling her down in Python-like fashion.  I didn't really get it.
Main altar at the cathedral of Cortona.  Notice the hanging baldacchino! This is the first time I have ever seen one that is suspended from the ceiling.

Some beautiful paintings in the cathedral.

The attempted martydom of St. Sebastian.  He was tied to a post, shot full of arrows, and left for dead.  After not dying and being nursed back to health by St. Irene, he was beaten to death with clubs.

I really loved this crucifix, especially because the body was life-size.

One really cool part of this city is that it contains a Fra Angelico piece called the Annunciation of Cortona.  As many of you may note, his most famous piece The Annunciation is a fresco he painted in San Marco in Florence.  Actually, Blessed Angelico really loved this scene and did about five major renditions of it.  The Annunciation of Cortona was his first, which he completed in 1436.  It was originally commissioned for the church of San Domenico near the bottom of town, but has since been moved to the diocesan museum across from the cathedral.

Besides the Archangel Gabriel and Virgin inside the portico, you can see the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove overshadowing her, Adam and Eve at the top left being expelled from the garden, and the figure of Isaiah in between the arches (who gave the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 -- "Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel").  In the predella (fancy name for this special kind of frame) is depicted stories from Mary's life as well as her apparition to St. Dominic.

The lower oratory of the museum had a beautiful ceiling that I snapped a shot of.  The two big ones you can see on the top are the Transfiguration and below it Christ's descent into hell after his death to rescue Adam and Eve and all the children of Abraham who hoped for a savior.

Kyle and I eventually walked all the way up to the top to visit St. Margaret and get a good view of everything.  Unfortunately, no photos were allowed inside the basilica, which is a bummer because the vaulted ceiling was gorgeous.  This church like the cathedral also had a hanging baldacchino, and St. Margaret was buried right there behind glass underneath the altar.

We were about an hour early for our train back to Assisi, so we stopped at a little bar near the station to drink a beer, which was glorious since it was so hot all day.  But all in all, Cortona was a great time and it was fun hanging with Kyle as well.  In general I have really enjoyed getting to know my brothers here.  Kyle is studying for the Archdiocese of Seattle, his family is from Guam.  Since the population of Guam is about 180,000, the odds of personally knowing a Guam-ese rounds off to about two thousandths of one percent.  Consequently, I'm thinking about starting my own chapter of the Members Only Club.

I was actually surprised to find that my fourth week here has really flown by.  Normally the last week loves to walk that really sluggish walk, especially when you are in class and the end of the tunnel seems so near!  But this was helped by the fact that on Wednesday we actually didn't have class.  The 15th of August is a national holiday in Italy, it's called the Ferragosto.  Everybody shuts down and we had the day free, so I decided with a few other guys to climb to the top of mountain on which Assisi is built.  It's called Mount Subasio, and depending on what route you take, it's about a 2-3 hour hike to the top.

Along the way there is the hermitage of St. Francis, a small monastery on the side of the mountain where he used to spend weeks or months in solitude and prayer.  I really want to show you guys this place, luckily we'll be going back to Assisi as an entire class a few weeks from now so I'll take a short video of it for you.  I'll give you this one tho.

Here are a few snaps from along the way:

Kyle and Patrick

Me Kyle and Jeff

My last weekend in Assisi I had plans to finally make it to the Adriatic coast and visit the small town of Pesaro.  Pesaro is about a 4 hour train ride northeast of Assisi and is known for having some of the more beautiful beaches on that side of the country.  As it turned out, my plans did not come to fruition, so I stayed home and took in the last bit of Assisi while I still could.  I finally visited a few churches that were still on the list, including a holy hour at the church of Saint Damian, which is where St. Francis received the vision from the cross of Christ telling him, "Go, Francis, and repair my Church, which as you see is falling into ruin."  This experience was a major turning point in his life, and redirected his efforts which eventually led to the founding of his community of men and the Franciscan Order.  St. Clare and her community were also founded at the site of this church.

All of us random folks who were there had to leave at noon because they were closing everything for the Italian siesta.  But a Franciscan brother must have pegged me somehow because as I was leaving he bee-lined right over and started talking to me.  After finding out I was a seminarian, he took me back inside and gave me a personal tour of the whole place and showed me the spots where St. Clare would eat, where she slept, and where she died.  I smiled afterward at God's generosity and thought to myself, "Yup. Well played."

This last weekend also began Assisi's equivalent of Renaissance Week.  Several of us walked down to San Pietro on Saturday evening to watch the drumline, dancing, and flag throwing show.  Afterward, we walked just up the hill to San Francesco to listen to a British choir sing a nice program of sacred music from that era.  The whole time I was thinking of my Art of Liturgical Music teacher Mrs. LaPeyre back at Sacred Heart in Detroit and how proud she would be of me for going to this show.  I must say, they were quite in tune!  Whoever their director was, he was famous, but I don't remember his name.

Walking up to St. Francis Basilica at dusk

Floor to ceiling frescoes in this basilica!
After a relaxing and fun weekend, we finished our coursework on the following Tuesday evening.  Kinda sad in some ways, and it came up so quickly!  But a great experience and such an awesome privilege to live and learn in this city for a whole month.  Now I will be off back to Rome to begin the next step of my journey.  They call it "regular orientation".  I call it code word for more Italian.  No I'm very excited to get back home actually.  Four weeks in Assisi was great, but it's time to settle in a little more and enjoy some more permanent lodging.  I'm tired of doing laundry in the bathtub!

My afternoon small group class, minus Father Sig the Franciscan.  Father Jim and Joe were my classmates, and this is my afternoon professoressa Silvia.  She makes fun of our made-up Italian words.

The three Fathers who stayed at our same hotel all month and were in class with us.  Great great men.  They were like the Three Amigos.  Fr. Jim, Fr. Sean, and Fr. Andrew.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A little time in the forest, a little in Florence

Second week in Assisi

First things first.  I said that I would take a picture of Assisi from the valley so you could see it in a little better perspective.  So here it is!

This is half the town.  The Basilica of St. Francis is on the left.

Here is the whole city of Assisi

Now we shall continue with regular scheduled programming.  It became clear to me this week in Italian class that my Spanish most definitely has the upper hand on me.  I am becoming more and more able to understand what's being said to me, but man is it difficult to speak it back using Italian grammar and vocabulary lol.  The Spanish response will immediately try to force its way out of my mouth, and when I realize I have to find the Italian version of that phrase, I realize I don't have the tools to do that yet.  So it's a little frustrating in that sense.

My small group teacher Sylvia makes fun of this tendency.  She says that since everything comes out a mix of Italiano, Spagnolo, and Inglese, I am super fluent in "Ita-gnol-ese".  At the end of two weeks, my brain feels super-saturated, and by Friday afternoon everything just kind of washes over my head and flies away in the breeze.  TGI Friday (or should I say GDÈ Venerdi?) is such a breath of fresh air though!

I guess I shouldn't necessarily say fresh air, though, since the temperatures have been sneakily creeping up into the mid to high 90s.  Blast.  I thought I would be free from the burning Roman heat; looks like it found us hiding in the mountains of Assisi and came to punish us.

On Tuesday I did get a chance to walk up to the top of Assisi to watch the sunset with a few of my bros.  The spot is home to the Rocca Maggiore, a fancy name for the castle of the city.  We took up a bottle of vino and enjoyed the views.

Rocca Maggiore from afar

San Rufino on the left and Santa Chiara on the right

Joe, Me, Clark, Sean, Steve, and Fr. Jim

This is Clark's Paul Bunyan pose.

Thursday was a special day here in Assisi.  It was the celebration of a feast known as the Pardon of Assisi.  In 1216, St. Francis had a vision of Jesus and Mary while praying in a small chapel in the valley of Assisi.  In the vision Jesus encouraged Francis for having a great zeal for the salvation of souls, and then said to him, "Ask me what you want for their salvation".  Francis asked the Lord for an indulgence to all those who would enter that church, who with true contrition confessed their sins.  He asked further that Mary would intercede for man before her Son on behalf of this grace.  Jesus replied to Francis, "It is a very great thing which you ask of me, and yet you are worthy of even greater things.  This request I shall grant you, but first go to my Vicar whom I have given the power to bind and loose in Heaven and on earth, and ask him on my behalf for this indulgence".

Francis did so, and Pope Honorius III granted his request, choosing August 1-2 as the day for this plenary indulgence each year.  The small chapel, called the Porziuncola, still remains standing to this day, and a basilica has since been built over it, called Santa Maria degli Angeli.  St. Francis often prayed in this chapel and at the end of his life he died about 50 feet away from it.  I walked into the valley on the evening of August 2nd to spend some time praying in Santa Maria and receive the indulgence.  It was really beautiful to behold.

This is the only pic I took inside the basilica.  But it gives you some idea of the experience.

A shot of San Francesco on my way back up the hill

I was actually able to make my way into the Porziuncola, and eventually found a spot to kneel down right in front of the altar.  I kneeled there for maybe 20 or 30 minutes (it was stone, my knees were killing me!) and prayed for you all by name.  "Holy Pinocchio!" you say, "But 'all' is such an inclusive term.  You sure you didn't forget me?"  Well, my fraters, I prayed for everyone I could possibly think of by name, then for all those I knew but whose names I forgot.  And I knew I would write about this, so I prayed for all those who would read this blog entry (I know, I know.  Praying for those who read a blog post sounds like an odd request to God.  Well I just rolled with it.  I tried my best!).  We can joke about it here, but in the moment I really did pray hard for you.  And even in my poverty I know that Jesus knew my intention, so you can be sure that you were covered!

This weekend was also a lot of fun.  Saturday the class took a walk down into the Bosco di San Francesco, where he and his brothers would work to upkeep the land.  We had an official tour guide whose job it was to explain everything to us.  The whole tour was in Italian, and his first words were, "Ok I'm going to speak slowly so you can understand what I'm saying."  And then he was off to the races.  So it was a little "troppo veloce", if you know what I mean.  I just decided to look around and enjoy the walk, because there was no hope for understanding.  The craziest thing I saw in the Bosco was the way that the trees grew, which was not straight up like all other reasonable trees grow, but perpendicular to the mountainside.  You kinda felt like you needed to lean sideways as you walked down.

At any rate, there is an old Benedictine monastery and chapel at the bottom where we finished the tour.  They made several types of jam and honey, and we were able to sample them with bread.  Awesome!  I ended up buying a jar of lemon marmalade.  I know, who has ever heard of lemon jam?  I must say, it pleasantly surprised me.  I thought of my dad and how much he would probably like this stuff.  Two other interesting flavors they made were garlic honey and onion honey.  If that sounds weird to you, it's probably because you're weird (someone high five me for that one).  Just kidding.  But if that sounds good to you, well I can vouch for your exceptional intuition!  I don't know how they made it work, but they did.

I got out of town for the day on Sunday and took a train to Florence!  Monsignor Jerry went with me, he stuck around for a couple hours and then continued on his  way up to Verbania, where some of my other classmates are studying their Italian.  We met up with my good friend Betsy for lunch, a family friend of mine from back home who is currently finishing up a five-week study abroad trip there.  She is also learning Italian, but we went ahead and just spoke English to each other lol.

Florence is a big city, it reminded me a lot of Rome in the architecture of its buildings and in all the tourism and important landmarks everywhere.  Florence, among other distinctions, is known for its leather, particularly its leather gloves (don't want those digits to get too tan, after all), its famous art, and a several famous churches like the Duomo.  They have several museums with important works of art like Michelangelo's David, but I didn't have enough time or money to check them out this time around.  Florence isn't a city you can see in a day anyway, so I'll go back there at some point for a second visit.

Betsy met us at the train station and we immediately went to get something to eat.  Along the way we passed the Duomo, which is HUGE.  I mean, it is a massive, massive domed cathedral, easily the biggest dome on a church I have ever seen.  Because of all the buildings and tight roads throughout the city, you can't necessarily see it from a distance, we just kind of ran into it all of a sudden.  I couldn't get far enough away from it to get the whole thing in my camera.  But I eventually got a decent perspective shot from a little ways away, so you can get some sense of how impressive this thing is next to its neighbors.

I stitched two photos together for this one.  Duomo from the backside.

It really does tower over everything around it!

We found a restaurant called Tavernetta Della Signora down the street from the main piazza.  Oh yeah, Florence is also famous for its delicious steaks, and I had to oblige myself.  I wasn't disappointed in the least, in fact it was probably the best meal I've had since I've been here.  Afterward we went for gelato at Perchè No! Gelateria and I enjoyed a cup of half vanilla, half orange chocolate rum.  Yummmmm.

Wish I took a photo of the plate!  Oh well, at least they get my free advertising.

Since 1939, so you know it's good.

Nom nom nom.

Betsy had to jet after that, but Father Jerry and I went back to the Duomo and took a look around inside for a while.  We also stopped briefly by the baptistery, which like St. John Lateran in Rome is a separate building outside the cathedral.  It has a pair of very famous doors sculpted in the mid 15th century by the famous Lorenzo Ghiberti.  Allegedly, Michelangelo was so impressed with the work that he dubbed them the "Gates of Paradise", and this term has stuck ever since.  Ten scenes from the Old Testament are cast in bronze on the panels of these doors.

We also made our way down to the famous bridge in Florence called the Ponte Vecchio, which has shops on both sides down the length of the bridge.  Although popular tradition holds that it was first built during Roman times, the current bridge as it stands was built in the mid 1300s.  During the Second World War, this was the only major bridge in Florence that wasn't destroyed by the Germans.

Making our way to the bridge

It's a pretty popular spot these days!  Lots of jeweler shops.

We walked back to the station after that and Father Jerry got on the train for Verbania, but I stuck around for a few more hours and walked over to another famous church called Santa Croce.  It is a beautiful church founded at the end of the 13th century.  It is one of the best preserved examples of Italian Gothic architecture.  It also contains the famous frescoes of Stories of St. Francis, painted by Giotto in the 14th century (didn't get photos of those, they were being restored).  Throughout the years, this church became THE place to be buried, and so the floor and walls are filled with big marble slabs or monuments to many of Italy's VIPs.  Folks like Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini, and Dante have their tombs or official memorials in this church.

If you are really important, then you get to be buried in a wall. Woohoo!

Standard chapel in this place.  Pretty incred.

The Annunciation sculpted by Donatello.

Ok look at all those white squares around the floor.  Marble tombstones of folks.  These must be the 'mildly important or otherwise rich' people.  Not enough clout for the wall, but at least they're in the church!

Outside Santa Croce in the courtyard

Courtyard from the other direction
I eventually made my way back to the station and took the late train back to Assisi, exhausted from so much walking.  I would have loved to have a second Sunday just to sleep in and chill out, oh well.  But I was glad to for another blessed weekend and an opportunity to explore the country while I still have the time!  We'll see what is in store for the latter half of my time in Assisi, so far it has been wonderful!  I'm glad you made it all the way to the bottom of this post, it was a long one!  Enjoy a few more random pics of Florence.

Betsy and I in front of the Duomo

Typical street in Florence

The important part here is not Johnny and Jenny PDA trying to photobomb my picture (although Italians do love their PDA). I wanted you to see that even the taxi cabs around here are luxury vehicles.

Perseus cutting off Medusa's head.  This is a popular sculpture in Florence, finished in 1554 by Benenuto Cellini.  Awesome.

Stitched two photos together again.

Inside of the Duomo

As close as I could get underneath the Dome.

The Uffizi courtyard.  This art museum is one of the most famous in the western world.

Dante's tomb in Santa Croce

I dunno why this turned out sideways, but here is Galileo

I only saw trees once all day, at a park I happened to walk by.

This guy was playing his cello by the Duomo all day for tips.  He sounded really good.

Nice shot of the front of the Duomo in the evening