Monday, August 13, 2012

First week flyby and good times

Sorry for the delay in getting this one out.  I'm going to try my best to pump out weeks two and three for you over the next few days.  Then I think we'll finally be caught up!

Reliving first week in Assisi

Wow, what a whirlwind of a week!  It has been quite the adventure trying to get to know this city, but I really have been enjoying the time with my brothers and the new sights...not to mention the cooler weather!!

Assisi is actually an ancient Roman city, though it was much smaller at that time.  Its climate and air is cooler and cleaner than in Rome, thus it became the so-called Up North Cottage of the wealthy Romans.  Back in the that day Assisi included, among other sights and sounds, an amphitheater, a Roman bath / spa and cistern for spring water, and a temple to the goddess Minerva (which has since been converted into a church).  And of course, the vacation homes of rich folks.  The spa eventually got turned into a convent, but has since been converted back into a spa / hotel.  Assisi also became a missionary spot for Christianity, particularly because of its first bishop Saint Rufino, who lived during the beginning of the third century.

He was martyred in 238 during the Roman persecution by having a boulder tied to his neck and being thrown into the Chiascio River.  His death would eventually plant the seeds for Sts. Francis and Clare in the first half of the thirteenth century.  They were both baptized at the Cathedral of San Rufino (in the very same baptismal font that is currently there!) and their saintly lives became the reason for this city's massive expansion after their deaths.  This is why Assisi has the appearance of a medieval city even though its origins go back to Roman times.

Since Assisi is on the side of a mountain, it has been built basically into layers of terraces.  All the big streets span the length of the city, between the Basilica of San Francesco on the west end, and the Cathedral of San Rufino and Basilica of Santa Chiara on the east end.  Little winding walking streets with endless steps will take you up and down the mountain between these terraces.  It takes a little while to figure out your direction, because they didn't build roads on a grid like we do back at home!  But it's been easier and easier to find my way around.

My first evening in Assisi was spent walking around with three of my brothers to find out just how the vino tastes in the land of Umbria (the region/state where Assisi is located).  We found it in a shop that I can only describe as a cand-elato-venience store.  Shelves and shelves full of pastry and candy treats, a whole slew of gelato bins, and walls stacked with wine and grappa.  It was like QD or 7/11, Italian style.  Grappa is a particular kind of liquor found here.  I'm not certain if it originates from Italy, but it sure is a popular gastronomic digestion aid in these parts.  The Italians are apparently all about good digestion; it is part of the reason they have such an affinity for carbonated water, and wonder why we Americans drink it au naturel.  Frankly, one look at American cuisine should tell them that we aren't in it for the 'easy pass-through'.

I did in fact buy my first bottle of white wine in Europe for 7,50.  You can find 'em for 3 or for 100, so I considered the purchase an exercise in correctly discerning the virtuous mean =).  And since I am an extensively accomplished wine connoisseur *shaking head no* I must say that I surprised myself by choosing an exquisite bottle of the fruit of the earth.  Well, I thought it tasted good at least, whatever that means for my wine tasting abilities.

As the evening drew to a close, I attempted to make my way from the hotel proper to the Casa at the top of the hill.  I had only walked the twisting path once, when we first put our stuff in our rooms at check-in that afternoon, and so my first attempt trying to remember all the turns took me way up and too far to the east.  I tried to circle around the top of town but ended up on the wrong road and too far to the west.  Eventually I decided to find my way back to the hotel and start over.

I did eventually get back and turned around for my second-and-a-half attempt.  I made it up this time successfully, only to look around and realize that I had already passed this place twice before.  I decided to congratulate myself for my Lenz-sense of direction, because technically speaking I did remember the directions correctly the first time... I just didn't recognize the destination in the dark.  Right?  That counts?  All in all, a five minute walk only took me about half an hour (tell you what, though, I haven't lost my way since!).

Italian has been an equal adventure.   Monday through Friday we are in larger groups of 12 students for four hours in the morning, and then in smaller groups of 4 for two hours in the afternoon.  30 hours of Italian a week is a lot!  There is not really a whole lot of "direct translating" that goes on, at least per se.  It's vastly almost all in Italian, even our textbook has zero English in it whatsoever.  (Sweet.)  The idea is not really one of learning by translation, so that your brain is constantly concentrating on putting everything back into English on the fly.  But rather learning by assimilation, in a sense learning how to think in Italian, since this is how we learn languages naturally.  Slowly you become increasingly able to make connections and draw out the meaning based upon context and repeated use.  I've actually been amazed at how quickly your brain can pick things up and get it right.  That said, my brain is still wired in English.

On Friday evening it was unquestioned (at least in my mind) that we should find some place to watch the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics.  Well, seven of us found it in a small bar at the bottom of town, kind of near the Basilica of San Francesco.  Oh yeah, I haven't shown you San Francesco yet, here it is from the outside:

Anyway, we sat outside on their little veranda and watched the ceremony from what was probably a 20" whopper of a TV.  Not exactly the 80" surround sound flatscreen system that I've been spoiled with at our establishments back at home, but hey, it was still an opportunity just to be able to see the Olympics with some friends in Assisi.

As Divine Providence would have it, there happened to be a young couple sitting a little ways down from us, enjoying their Italian dinner in the moonlight.  The guy kept walking over to peek at the TV to see what we were watching.  We told them, yes it was the opening ceremony if they were interested, to which they replied, "Ouuh great, mahytes, weee're ackshlly frum Looundn. Let us knouuhw whin th'queen pops on the TV".  I was immediately excited and amazed, first that we had found other English speaking people, and second that these folks were from London of all places.  We all kind of replied with, "Oh my gosh!  What are you dooooooing here??!!" and they were like, "Wee Knooouuuuuuhww!"  We all laughed.  Apparently they had booked these travel plans way in advance and the London games weren't on the radar at that point.

Anyway, about ten minutes later they had abandoned their dinner to come sit with us and watch the opening ceremony, so we grabbed them some chairs and a table.  They were both about 30 years old, a handsome couple, Richard and Charlotte (what jolly good English names).  Super cool people, very easy going and it was fun to sit and chat and get to know them.  We eventually found out that they just got engaged the day before!  How awesome and exciting.  Eventually they found out that they were chilling with a group of seminarians studying to be Catholic priests.  Lol that's always kind of a fun and funny moment.  Being a seminarian has made me especially perceptive of the different ways people react to this news.

To that end there is usually a kind of unspoken game that goes on internally in these moments.  Seminarians know all about it.  It goes kinda like this: "...Oh, yup.  OK here they come, the get-to-know-you questions.  How long can we go before we have to mention the p-word?"

Generally speaking, I try to keep the cat in the bag as long as possible if I'm meeting someone for the first time.  Hmm, why?  Well I don't speak for everyone, and there probably is no hard and fast rule on this, but the concise answer for me is that it gives them as much time as possible to associate with and become comfortable with Brian the human being before being introduced to Brian the possible-future-p-word.  In our crazy day and age, 'priest' is anything but a neutral term, so it's important for me to incarnate that term in a positive light before someone has the chance to apply a pre-determined opinion.  Not because it is important to have human approval so much as it is due to the nature of the Catholic priesthood in God's plan of salvation.

Simply put, priests share in the work of salvation in an especially unique manner.  God charges them to help souls get to heaven in essential ways that no one else can offer (administration of the Sacraments in particular).  If this is true, then souls need to have as much access to and as much confidence in the Catholic priesthood as possible, not only in a general way but in concrete particular incarnations of that vocation.  Priests need to help this cause by being especially attractive people, insofar as the authentic holiness of their lives attracts people to themselves, but ultimately through themselves to Jesus.

Even as a seminarian, who I am reflects on what people think of the things I symbolize for them beyond myself: the Catholic Church, or priests, or religious people, or God, what have you.  So if Brian is an honest, sincere, down to earth guy who I want to be around, maybe just maybe there are priests out there who are honest, sincere, down to earth and trustworthy priests.  This is *super* important if priests really do have a special stake in the salvation of your soul and mine.  When I am a conduit toward Christ in that personal encounter simply by being an authentic and attractively holy human, then the surprise entrance of that important p-word will hopefully help someone down the line to benefit from the gift of the Catholic priesthood rather than lead them away from this gift.  Perhaps only by a reinforcement of their positive perspective, perhaps only by a small change for the better in their negative perspective.  Either way, that's a really good thing.

If that sounds all philosophical and religious, you're probably right my friend.  But here it is applied in the real world.  Back in Friday-land, there was nothing remarkable about Richard and Charlotte's response to us.  They just smiled with surprised eyes and said something to the effect of, "Ooooohhhw, well that's fantastic, how exciting, good on you mahytes.  And Rome!  Bravo."

If their reaction to this random group of seminarians was a pleasant surprise, it certainly helped in part that they didn't meet these people: "Oh-hi-it's-nice-to-meet-you-we're-John-Brian-Peter-Paul-Luke-Matthew-Mark-Joseph-and-John-the-Baptist-and-we're-going-to-be-Catholic-priests-one-day-do-you-want-know-more-about-Jesus-how-about-Catholicism-or-we-could-tell-you-about-how-holy-and-humble-we-are-and-how-much-we-pray-and-then-beat-you-over-the-head-with-our-Bibles-and-our-advanced-religious-jargonry-blah-blah-blafhfdskfjhsasdsaf".

Instead, I hope they met a group of young men whose un-awkward-down-to-earth normalcy somehow makes a radical life choice to live for God suddenly seem a little more possible, a little more reasonable for all the rest of us un-awkward-down-to-earth normal average Joes out there, too.  And for a couple who didn't practice religion, and whose journey toward Christ and His Church was still finding its expression in being spiritual-but-not-religious, I had to smile at how immediately and freely they opened up about the spiritual experiences in their lives once the cat was out of the bag.

They talked about their time in Rome and the Vatican, about seeing St. Peter's and meeting "just a fantastic priest" while they were there who promised he would pray for them.  And they were so excited to have the graces of the Big Man in heaven on their side because of this priest.  And what a turn of luck to find a group of seminarians, maybe we could pray for them too.  And they talked about how much they loved Assisi (this was their second trip I think) because of the spirit of peace in the air that you could just feel in this place.  And they asked us to tell them about the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare, and what we wanted to do as priests, would we all stay in Rome and work at the Vatican or did we all dream of being the pope one day (we laughed at that one).

Well, they were great fun and liked us and we liked them, and we drank beer together and talked about every random thing, chuckling as we continued to correctly predict the next thing that was about to happen in the opening ceremony.  We stayed with Richard and Charlotte all the way to the lighting of the Olympic torch, which was about 2:15 a.m. Italy time.  But in the midst of it all I began to realize that this encounter with these good souls was probably the most important thing God had planned for me this week.  I dunno, He really won me over to them, and so I've been praying for them since then.  I really hope they make it together, and that they find the Church one day.  And how I hope we reunite in heaven!

But before this post starts to become a tome, I suppose I should stop here for now.  One last really cool thing.  This week I had the opportunity to participate in a Mass in the crypt of the Basilica of Santa Chiara, at the tomb of St. Clare!  You can only fit four people in the small chapel next to her tomb, so it was me and three priests (one of whom was the good Msgr. Jerry).  An awesome privilege, not many people get to do this.  God sure is good.  I guess I'll stick all my pics at the bottom of this one, enjoy!

We had an opportunity this week as a class to go down into the Franciscans-Only part of San Francesco to check out the official Franciscan library and records.  Pretty neat.

Interior courtyard leading to the lib

The lib.

Lots of important books that Francis either wrote or used himself.

Fr. Jerry and I attempting to be holy at the tomb of Saint Clare.  As you can see, I'm just slap happy to be there.

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