Friday, August 29, 2014

It's me again!

I'm standing at my makeshift computer desk here in Langley, the window open just enough for some fresh (autumn!) air, birdsong and the sounds of planes heading for or from Heathrow Airport.

After almost three weeks in Italy, I am still on Italian auto-pilot, about to respond to things in that language, stumbling though my efforts will be. (I am really good at translating from Italian into English, but the other way around leaves the Italians misty-eyed with compassion. Or maybe it's just confusion.)  On arriving back in the London area, I really had to hit the ground running: we Daughters of St Paul are having a weekend gathering of all the sisters in the UK, and I am providing the first morning's session, getting everyone on the same pages in terms of awareness of social media trends and how the Daughters of St Paul fit into this new media culture.
Sorry, but I can see your kind in
abundance in the British Museum!

Still, after all that time in Italy, there's a lot I want to share, but I think I'll start, for now, toward the end...on our second-to-last outing, which definitely had a more cultural flavor: a morning at the Vatican Museums. Because audio guides are available in the different languages I was officially off duty as a translator; in fact, the directors of the Pauline spirituality program left me free to visit the Museums at my own pace, while the group attempted more or less to stick together. I was grateful for the opportunity to spend extra time in the areas that most interested me, many of them having been restored since the last time I was able to visit (whether that was 30 or 15 years ago!). An added perk is that photography is allowed (no flash, but you knew that), so I can share some highlights with you for years to come.
Ceiling scene of heaven!

Pinturicchio Annunication from the Borgia Apartments.
Don't let the infamy of Pope Alexander VI blind you to
his artistic sensibilities. 
But first, a bit of advice: when you go to the Vatican Museums, start at the Pinacoteca (the art gallery). Many of the other museums in the complex have exhibits of the sort you can find in any well-maintained museums or art or history: Egyptian sarcophagi (and one unwrapped mummy whom I couldn't help but pity), Etruscan vases, cuneiform tablets--that sort of thing. The Pinacoteca has one of a kind stunners like Raphael's immense Transfiguration and Caravaggio's "Deposition of Christ." I regret that I left the Pinacoteca for last, when I was falling prey to sensory overload (not to mention hunger); I didn't have the energy to really enjoy those paintings and altarpieces that deserve to be seen in person and not just in reproduction.

Another hint: bring a mirror. There's an incredible amount of loveliness on the ceiling, and you don't want to get a crick in your neck from trying to take it all in.

Detail: Attila the Hun being run off (by the Apostles Peter and
Paul in the skies over Rome) at his meeting with Pope Leo. 

I made a remark about being "force fed"
through the Contemporary Art section, and
then came across this.

There was always someone pausing before
the Caravaggio Deposition.

You've seen the Raphael Madonna before,
but the attention always seems to go to
the little putti (boy angels) at her feet.
Here's a different detail, featuring one
of my favorite saints (on the feast day
of his martyrdom).

Raphael's depiction of Peter's release from Herod's prison is
right over a window. I kept a hand under the lens to keep some
of the glare out. 

Peter looks pretty tired from his perch between
a doorway and the ceiling. To see him, you
have to turn completely around when you
enter the hall.
Shepherd at the Crib; detail from a

The sarcophagus of St Helena, of all people. With the military
scenes carved in bas relief all over it, it was probably designed
for the Emperor.

Pinturicchio Visitation--from the Borgia Apartments. Again, you
do not want to miss them, even though you have to weave
your way through lots of contemporary art to get there. (Why,
no, I am not a big fan of contemporary art; how did you guess?)

This is one of those places where you really
need a mirror. I think they said the hall was
40 (or 400?) meters long.
Coming next (or eventually, anyway): Assisi! Nettuno (home of St Maria Goretti)! Orvieto! And the great Pauline centenary celebrations in our congregation's hometown, the home of Nutella and white truffles, Alba!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Hard at Rome!

Arrived in Rome on Saturday evening and got to work Sunday afternoon, translating conference talks
for a group of sisters taking a course in our congregation's spirituality. The program is being held in a conference building on the grounds of our world headquarters (Generalate). I have been here several times before, but this is the first time I have even seen the downstairs conference hall with its four booths for simultaneous translation. There are sisters here from India, the Philippines, Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Venezuela, but only the English-speaking sisters need a translator, so I am alone in the back section, working hard at keeping up with the presenter. For the most part this is fairly easy for me and entertaining as well; I am really getting a lot out of the conference material, which I am following attentively even as I translate it. Once in a while, the speaker gets really impassioned about the topic, and that point I do all I can to capture her attention and ask her to slow down. Yesterday, that involved me standing up and waving my arms wildly until the speaker noticed.

Since I had had a few free hours on Sunday, I was able to go to Saint Peter Square for the Angelus
with Pope Francis. I brought my voice recorder with me, and got some of the ambient sound, the youth groups singing and chanting and roaring their exclamations of encouragement; I interviewed people from England, New Jersey, Verona... I recorded the Holy Father's entire talk as well, where he spoke of the horrors unfolding in Iraq and the necessity of a political solution that would restore the rule of law. It is just as the reports said: you could hear a pin drop in that crowd of thousands.

For a while afterwards, I stood in the security line to go into St. Peter's Basilica, but realized that I would not have time to enter the Basilica and still get back for my translating assignment, so I walked through some of the familiar streets of Rome (and got a gelato while I was at it) before getting on the bus. While I was finishing my gelato a gypsy woman pleaded with me for a donation. I really did not have anything on me (and I was supremely irritated my her refusal to accept that fact); in the end, and only to get rid of her, I gave her the sandwich I had bought for my lunch. Later, I reflected: part of what irritated me was that she approached me as a stereotype: the tender – hearted sister who would surely have a heart for a poor, penniless woman pleading for a bit of bread (sorry to say, that is not me at all!) And I reacted to her as to a stereotype: the whining, importunate Gypsy (I am aware that gypsy is considered a derogatory term now – it is a stereotype, and this is the net in which I found myself trapped). Pope Francis challenges us to treat people in these circumstances like unique persons, not as examples of negative stereotype; to address them as individuals, and present myself as an individual as well. I actually hope I will not have another opportunity for this, but if it comes about, I pray that I will respond better.

On Monday, the group (and I with them!) visited the Coloseum, the Lateran Basilica, the "Holy Stairs" (transported from the Roman praetorium in Jerusalem by St Helena), the catacombs, the Church "of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem" (so called for its relics of the True Cross--including a chunk of worm-eaten wood with an inscription in Hebrew, Greek and Latin "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" that, incredibly enough, bears an interesting hallmark of authenticity) and St. Mary Major. I am ashamed to admit that I took selfies in several of these locales--mostly for my family (but also to share with you).

While the sisters got out of the bus on our final stop, I ran over to my favorite spot in Rome, just yards from St Mary Major: I knew I only had fifiteen minutes before Basilica of St Praxedes would close for a four-hour siesta. One of my last Euros went into the slot to light up the St Zeno chapel, a jewel of Byzantine mosaic. It was as much a service to the other visitors as it was an act of self-indulgence: unless the lights were on, they would have no idea how much beauty they were walking by.

In the afternoon, it was back into the booth with me, and that is where I spent most of the week. But tomorrow, we're in for a big treat: the group is headed to Assisi for a day trip! And on Assumption Day, Italy's official summer holiday (good luck finding a single business open), our group and the sisters of the Generalate plan to go to Mass at St Peter's, climb the cupola (for the able-bodied!) and visit the Vatican Museum. Once we get home from that outing, it's time to pack: the Pauline Family centenary is August 20, and we will be on location in the far north of Italy for the festivities. I was even asked to cantor the Responsorial Psalm for the Mass (in Spanish!) in the great Church of St Paul in Alba, a church constructed with bricks formed and baked by our own Pauline brothers and sisters.

Sorry for the haphazard graphic design in this post; I am doing this on an uncooperative iPad app... (It was really hard for me to leave the computer in England, but I decided to follow the Lord's advice about packing  light!)

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

New book for apologetics without apologies

Patrick Madrid is well known as a Catholic apologist--that is, one who presents the reasonableness of the faith, especially in response to challenges. Every adult Catholic, I am sure, has heard the usual challenges: our faith is not biblical; we worship Mary or statues; we "multiply prayers" in outright contradiction to the command of the Gospel "do not multiply your words when praying. Now, of course, we are hearing new challenges, some of them quite absurd: Catholicism is "anti-intellectual"; Catholic moral teachings do not take practical realities into account; Catholicism is incompatible with the findings of science... 

Assumptions like these can be common currency in our day (especially the newer ones can be almost taken for granted, even by Catholics!). This makes a book like "Why Be Catholic?" helpful not only for the sincere seeker, but for the earnest, but uncertain Catholic who doesn't really "have an answer to those who ask the reason for your hope" (cf 1 Pet 3:15)--and hopes that an answer is out there. 

"Why Be Catholic?" is eminently readable. Madrid is not just an apologist, he is a storyteller (the best kind of apologist!). In responding to the typical Protestant objections or challenges to Catholicism, he hearkens back to his teen years when the object of his affections was from so fundamentalist a background, her Dad had those ridiculous "Chick" pamphlets ready at hand. (Madrid got an early start responding to misconstrues of the faith!) 

Madrid looks at ten basic areas, starting with the most difficult of them all: the sin that is so manifestly present and active among us, most horribly in the clergy sex abuse scandals. Looking through the Old and New Testaments, and especially the Gospel parable of the weeds among the wheat, Madrid points out that "Scandals are part of the life of the Church not because of its teachings and customs, but because individual Catholics choose to reject and ignore those teachings."  He doesn't leave it there, though, on the purely intellectual level of cause and effect. Madrid challenges the reader to face his or her own temptations to lukewarmness and compromise. He affirms the role of conscience, and the deep connection between freedom and truth. He will continue to do this through the next nine chapters: offering a solid, intellectually and historically grounded presentation of some little-understood dimension of Catholic teaching or practice, and then inviting the reader to conform his or her life to the values that teaching reveals.

"Why Be Catholic?" looks at sin and at history, at the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and Confession, which each get a chapter), at the Papacy, Mary and the Saints, about "good works" (especially care for the poor and the fostering of education), and the connection of faith, reason and happiness. 

It was the final chapter that I found the weakest. I believe that Madrid here attempted to do too much, or just didn't have the heart to edit out some favorite phrases or appeals. A distinct and focused chapter on faith, reason and virtue would have been fine, with an epilogue delivering the final exhortation. Instead, it was all kind of loosely lumped together. When I turned the page and realized that there was no "summation" or final punch, I felt let down.

On the whole, however, "Why Be Catholic?" is a helpful book--and not only for the non-Catholic who is "tempted" to test the waters of Catholicism. The wavering Catholic who is willing to reflect with Madrid will also find a great deal of support, perhaps filling in the blanks of an inadequate religious education (or one that stopped at Confirmation!).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Woman Jesus Loved

Every year on July 29, the same thought crosses my mind: Where are all the headlines? You know, the "Jesus' wife" hoaxes, the cheesy romance stories about Jesus and a female disciple, the cloak-and-dagger novels about Jesus' secret family with (who else?) Mary Magdalen.

Why, you ask, on July 29? It's not, after all, the feast of St. Mary Magdalen--that was last week.

Ah, but today, July 29, is the feast of the only woman the Bible categorically states that Jesus loved. Look it up! It's John 11:5:
"Jesus loved Martha (and her sister and Lazarus)." 

Where are the headlines? Where are the exposés?

Is it somehow disappointing to learn of Jesus' love for Martha in the same sentence that testifies to his love for her sister and brother? To me that's just the point that so many "Jesus' wife" stories miss. Jesus' love for each one of us has that unique, unrepeatable character that our limited experience of humanity finds best exemplified in spousal love. The fact that nowhere in the remotely reliable tradition indicates that Jesus was married is a clue that we can each have an extravagantly personal relationship with Jesus. The kind Martha had. The kind that led to her epic act of faith: "I believe that you are the Christ, the One who is coming into the world."

The anointing at Bethany; that's Martha sitting next to Peter (between Jesus and the apostles).
Manuscript detail from the Walters Museum of Art.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pilgrim to Walsingham

Inside the Slipper Chapel.
There was a time, roughly a thousand years ago when Walsingham was the destination of many a medieval pilgrim. The shrine was built to be a replica of Mary's house at Nazareth, constructed on the request of Our Lady herself. A baker's wife could not make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or even Campostela, but she could go to the "Holy House" of Our Lady in Norfolk. Indeed, baker's wives, fishermen and even kings had been making their way to this shrine in honor of the Annunciation since 1061.

Well, pilgrims needed shelter, and meals and other sorts of services, didn't
they? When the Augustinians arrived, they had more than enough to keep all the Fathers (Canons, to be more exact) busy. A village sprouted along the roadside. Business was good. And gifts flowed to the Augustinian priory, too. Right next to the Holy House, its triple towers soared to the heavens. In the refectory (dining room), high arched windows let in plenty of light for the lector in his pulpit to read pious or instructive texts to the community during meals. Down the road, at the Slipper Chapel, a constant stream of pilgrims confessed their sins and then removed their shoes to make the final mile to Walsingham unshod.

The remaining tower of the Augustinian Prior.
Now in private hands, it can be visited for a fee.
It all came to a sudden end over "the King's great matter" during the reign of Henry VIII. The revered statue of Our Lady seated on a throne with her Son in her lap was pulled from the Holy House and carried to London, where it was thrown into a fire. The Holy House itself was leveled. Even the enormous Priory was sacked and razed--at least as much of it as could be torn down. Pilgrimages ended overnight, though for centuries there were tiny hints of devotion by stealth. The Slipper Chapel became a workhouse.

Eventually a law court was established in the village, and a vast prison.

And then, after centuries in the shadows, Catholicism became legal again. The Slipper Chapel, tumbledown but still surviving, was purchased and restored. Unable to visit even the grassy spot where the Holy House once stood (the entire property of the shrine and Priory had long since gone into private hands), pilgrims visited the Slipper Chapel instead. Eventually, it was named the National Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. A new statue was commissioned, based on the design of a pilgrim's medallion from the glory days. Anglican devotees built a shrine, too, near the original site.
Slipper Chapel,
seen from behind.

When my Norwich hosts (see "Rhymes with Porridge") suggested we go to Sunday Mass at Walsingham, I knew it was the answer to a prayer: this was the one place I most wanted to visit while in England! We got a little lost (Walsingham is still in the sticks), but were set on the right road by a passer-by near the Anglican shrine. We were only a mile away from the Slipper Chapel, the "RC Shrine" of Our Lady. As we jostled down the narrow country lane in a rental car, we passed groups on foot, mostly Indian groups walking the other way. (They had to go single-file to accommodate our car.) 3,000 Syro-Malabar Catholics were expected for Mass in the afternoon, and many of them came early. They would process from the Anglican shrine to the Slipper Chapel and outdoor Mass space. When we arrived, we found the parking lot completely full; our car was directed to a nearby field. We had time to visit a bit before Mass in the modern chapel. (The Slipper Chapel only holds about a dozen worshipers!)

After Mass, we knew we could not make it down the road (not with 3,000 worshipers processing in), so we took our time visiting the shrine. I had made a list of prayer intentions before Mass, wanting to write the names of as many sisters and family members as possible, starting with those whose needs were most timely or urgent, such as my dear Alabama uncle and cousins who had just said their last good-byes to my aunt. (She and Mom topped the list.) I just didn't want to assure people of generic prayers, although I told Our Lady that I was praying for "everyone whose name I wish I could recall specifically right now..." That slip of paper got added to the prayer intention box, while I lit two candles in the "Holy Ghost Chapel"--one for my religious family, one for my natural family.

Meanwhile, in the background, I could hear the sound of pilgrims continued, in the light rain, to come in prayer to Mary's house in Walsingham!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Pray for your persecutors..." and a prayer for one by name

As much as my thoughts have been focused on the unspeakable sorrows of the Christians of Iraq as their ancient civilization is dismantled while the world busies itself with other matters, it occurred to me that I ought to be praying much, much more for their vicious persecutors, those men whose consciences are so blinded by ideology that they pulled a three-year-old from his grandfather's protecting arms and shot the child in the head out of spite. The loss of cathedrals and monasteries and manuscripts pales before the execution of a toddler. And only today is the news beginning to get picked up by the world press. Indeed, it was the Vatican newspaper that this morning broke the story that the BBC and CNN began posting this afternoon: female genital mutilation is the new order of the day under Iraq's self-proclaimed Caliphate.

I've been retweeting items on this over the past several days, hardly believing the news (and yet finding it confirmed via Vatican radio, the Fides news service and Al Arabiya news service; Al Jazeera? Not so much!) Today I got responses from two Muslims, one in London who expressed some doubts, at least about the FGM part: "Sunni Muslims are against FGM and ISIS is Sunni" ; another response was supportive of ISIS, claiming "Due to reduction in prices & Crime become 0% Public R happy with ISIS Controlled Area, Tax on Christian 2% & Muslim 2.50%." (Right. The criminals are in charge.)

Obviously, none of the powers that be in this world are anxious to rescue hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees in one of the world's troubled spots. Does that mean we (and they) are utterly helpless?

I got to thinking about another time when a brilliant and fanatically violent man was devastating the Church. What if we began an intense campaign of prayer to St Paul for the conversion of "Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi" (given name, Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai).

In the interest of promoting just such a campaign, I offer a prayer:

O Glorious Apostle Paul,
persecutor of the Church who became its most ardent preacher,
we commend to you Abu Bakr al-Baghadi.
He was created for eternal life with God, 
but he has now given himself over to unspeakable evil.
Intercede, St Paul, for this new persecutor of Christ's Body.
Turn his life around as completely as yours was, that day on the Damascus Road.
Obtain for him the unmerited and unexpected grace 
of coming to know Christ Jesus as Lord and Christians as his very Body,
that his life may bear fruits of grace and not works of death,
for the Glory of God and peace to humanity.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Rhymes with Porridge

The lovely details of Liverpool
Street Station, London.
On the invitation of a Chicago choir friend whose husband is from Norwich, I just spent a delightful weekend in that town and its environs. The first thing I learned, as you may have already gathered, is how to pronounce the name of the locale. It is not Norwich (nor-witch). The "w" is silent. But do not say, as I rather consistently did, "Norrich." The proper pronunciation is "Norridge" (rhymes with porridge). (Horatio Nelson is from this area by the sea.)

The place reeks of history that goes back to the Stone Age. Closer to our own times, one of the first places we came upon was the Adam and Eve pub, founded in the 1200's and still serving food, drink and atmosphere today. Conveniently enough for the modern-day owners, the Adam and Eve is located right by a public parking lot. However, while we did use the parking lot, we did not avail ourselves of the Adam and Eve, so someone else will have to tell you if their food measures up to 21st century expectations!

A bit of our time in the town was spent visiting Cathedrals. The more ancient Cathedral, built in Norman days, is now, like most of the ancient churches in this country, Anglican. A strikingly well-designed (and brand spanking new) visitors center provided all the conveniences, including a lovely cafe and a small gallery where a photography exhibition was on display. We walked around the cloister, enjoying the bas-relief medallions in the ceiling and the lovely courtyard, which was ready for a Shakespeare festival. Inside, we were unable to visit the Choir area (a wedding was in progress), but we did get to hear the magnificent pipe organ. (My hosts' little girl (age 3), the daughter of not one but two Church musicians, ran to the book rack and brought us each back a hymnal!) A Methodist minister was in attendance as the greeter, and he came to speak with us and make sure we felt comfortable and welcome (which we did).

Detail of one of the ceiling medallions along the entire span
of the cloister walk.

After a hearty "cream tea" ("cream tea" refers not to the drink, but to the scones, served with remarkable--probably inimitable--British clotted cream), we continued on toward an open air market, by way of an arcade in the Arts and Crafts style. I popped into the mustard shop. (I had never been in a mustard shop before, but Colman's is a local company.) I walked out with a kitchen apron, which I plan to use for my Tuesday cooking turn. (I won't have to borrow someone else's apron now--and I'll have a fitting souvenir to bring home at the end of my UK year!)

Beyond the market (where the prices were so good I wanted to buy all the veggies and haul them back to London) and some really picturesque shops and restaurants we made it to the Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist well before the Saturday evening Mass. While I visited the Church, my friend and her daughter spread their picnic blanket on the grass of the garden beyond the well-appointed cafe (the gift shop was closed); in the visitors area was a series of panels presenting basics of Catholicism and of Catholic history in England, as well as a hands-on explanation of how stained glass windows are made. The garden was beyond the cafe's outdoor seating area. (I read in one of the brochures that the Cathedral's stained glass had been removed for safekeeping during the bombardments of World War II.)

As dusk began to fall, we were in the car, where a three-year-old conductor led us all in singing "Doe, a deer" ("Sing it again!") all the way to Comer, a popular beach town with a sprawling Victorian Hotel on a crest overlooking the sea, ice cream shops every ten feet, and fish-and-chips places with queues all the way down the road. We detoured by one ice cream shop for a "whippy" (soft serve) and took them all the way to the waterline, digging in the wet sand with teaspoons and letting the cold waters of the North Sea wash past our toes. Only when the sun had slipped past the horizon did we join the queue for our fish and chips, the fish caught that day in those very waters--the first "real" fish and chips I have ever had. (If I ever go back, I am told I must try the "Comer crab.")

On a future installment of Nunblog: Pilgrims to Walsingham!

Blickling Hall (after closing hours); we paused on the road to
stroll up to the front doors of this "small" Jacobean estate.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Docent for a Day

Lots of della Robbia on display.
About a mile from our London bookshop is the Victoria and Albert Museum. That proximity makes it my new don't-have-much-time and rainy-day destination for my free day (currently Saturday--a terrible day to go to the nearby science museum, which has lines stretching down the block). On Saturday I dodged the raindrops and entered through a side door, ignoring (for now) the plea for a free-will offering of £3, £4 or even £5 for entry. My plan was to hunt down Raphael's "St. Paul Preaching in Athens," which is housed there.

I never made it to the Raphael room. On my way to look for it, I came across vast rooms of Medieval and Renaissance architectural features, from wall fountains to an entire sanctuary from a Poor Clare convent (with crown moldings of della Robbia tiles!). There were funerary monuments (including the sarcophagus of St. Justina); altar screens (one enormous one formed an entryway to the next exhibition space, and had been built in the late 1500's as an assertive response to the destruction of the earlier screen by iconoclastic reformers); Madonnas, Annunciations... and in the second space, stained glass windows and elaborate altar pieces from the late Middle Ages.

St Justina's sarcophagus
I was just starting to visit that next section, standing before the stained glass windows on the outer edge. Another visitor glanced up, and then asked me, "Do you know what these windows are depicting?" I had to admit that if it was biblical, I wouldn't have any real trouble identifying the stories, but that sometimes these medieval works refer to legends that I am just not familiar with. It just so happened that the window we were before was pretty easy: the Nativity story.

I pointed out halo that indicated that this was not just any baby; the shepherds; the panel of the massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt. Just above that was Moses, coming upon the worship of the golden calf, so I remarked on the Egypt connection between the two stories, and that while Moses had led the people out of Egypt, the child Jesus was being led back there--because he was the real Moses. A few expressions of recognition told me that my museum friend probably had at least some Jewish background, but he was completely mystified by any New Testament reference.

"Do you mind telling me more, say, about this window?" So we went to the next window. I had to think about it--there was some kind of theophany going on (the blaze of glory with God inside) but no other halos...  and sheep... and a prominent shepherd. Then I realized that the blaze of glory was really flames. In a bush. "Oh, it's Moses again!" Then there was the temptation in the desert, John the Baptist, and another panel of the Baptism of the Lord. I told the story of John's initial reluctance to baptize Jesus, and Jesus' response ("What an act of humility!" the man responded appreciatively.)

More than once I had to assure my fellow visitor that I really didn't mind decoding the art; that it was fun to be sharing this with him. He believed me, because next he said, "If you wouldn't mind, there is a piece on the other side that really puzzled me. It seems to involve some extreme torture." It was an elaborate altar piece, centered on the Annunciation (above) and the Crucifixion, with side units to the left portraying the scourging at the pillar ("A Roman scourging," I told him. "So those men with the diabolical expressions are soldiers?") and the carrying of the Cross, and on the right, the burial of the Lord and the Resurrection. Behind the main scenes, which were completely sculpted figures, smaller, also complete scenes told more of the story--for instance, the Burial had the Harrowing of Hell in the back! ("What is that gaping mouth?" "That's the jaws of death." "You mean they used mythology like that?" "Yep.") Behind the Resurrection, one side featured the encounter of Mary Magdalene and "the gardener" ("This is all happening in a garden," I reminded the man, whose name I learned was Stan; "Where did the first sin take place?" "In a garden," he said, nodding.) The arches over the main scene featured smaller bas-reliefs of yet more of the story (in the Resurrection scene, you can make out the Dinner at Emmaus on the upper left side, in the column). (To give you a sense of the size, the figure of Christ is about 11 inches tall.)

In my eagerness to point out the many incredible details, at one point I touched one of the figures. Immediately a museum guard showed up to remind me that the pieces must not be touched!!! (Stan thought that was great.) Soon after that, Stan was to meet his wife for lunch; he asked to take my picture in front of the remarkable Passion Narrative altarpiece, and we said goodbye.

Not bad for my first day as a docent!

But next time, I really do want to find that Raphael!

Monday, July 07, 2014

Rome again, Rome again (jiggety-jig?)

That's right! I got the call from Mother General two weeks ago, asking if I would be willing (willing?!) to go to Rome in August to do some simultaneous translation (I love doing simultaneous translation!) for a spirituality pilgrimage to key places in our community's history: Rome, of course, with its Pauline sites; Assisi and Pisa (just because) and our home city of Alba in the gastronomic paradise of Piemonte--to be present on location on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Pauline Family!

I kind of kept all this quiet (even though I wanted to do the happy dance all over London) until the superior here let the sisters know--not a good thing in community when the sisters find things out on Facebook--but now you can thank the Lord with me for the grace to participate in the centennial in such a concrete way.

Send your special intentions to me via the comments box--I won't publish them if you tell me not to--and I will deliver them to Sts. Peter and Paul, St. John Paul and St. John XXIII; Blessed James Alberione; Venerable Mother Thecla Merlo; Venerable Mother Scholastic Rivata; Blessed Timothy Giaccardo; Venerable Maggiorino Vigolungo; St. Francis and St. Clare and any other intercessors I cross paths with along the way.

One thing I might not be able to do is see Pope Francis (unless I can slip away for the Angelus on the one Sunday I'll be in Rome: how about you pray for that little bitty intention?).

Jim Gaffigan takes me back in time...

Here in England, I end up spending a lot of time on public transportation, opening up new opportunities for reading. I'm a big fan of non-fiction, and usually go for things in the realm of liturgy, history and, yes, liturgical history, but last week I received a review copy of Jim Gaffigan's "Dad is Fat" and indulged in pure fun. Gaffigan used to be identified with his "Hot Pockets" routine, but now I think he's more known as the funnyman with all those kids. He and comedy-writing-partner wife Jeannie have five so far (don't ask them if they're "done yet"; there's a whole chapter on that).

On Sunday, sitting alone in the back seat of the community car while we were stuck in London traffic, I kept laughing out loud as I read, provoking a lot of head-turning and quizzical looks. Finally, when I managed to keep from chortling, I read the zingers out loud. I think the sisters in the car were all from big families (one of them, I know, had ten siblings); they could all identify with the stories and that oddball sense of humor.

So Gaffigan writes about his wife; about his kids (by the end of the book, you know them all by name--though I can't figure out how to pronounce daughter Marre's name); about finding babysitters (like grandparents! "The problem is, when you are not paying someone to do a favor for you, they don't really need to listen to you. 'No candy' means 'Your heartless parents don't give you candy, so I will give you tons of candy..."); about being the kind of Catholic who goes to Mass each and every Sunday with five children ("Am I torturing my children, because church is the opposite of a video game?"). He writes about Catholic guilt--and how Parental Guilt "totally puts 'Catholic Guilt' to shame." He writes about life with five kids in a two-bedroom apartment (until the family's recent move, bedtime involved shifts and a "holding cell"), and he writes about "attachment parenting" ("Since Jeannie is a big believer...and I'm a spineless coward, we have instituted an open-door policy, meaning if one of our kids has a nightmare, they are welcome to come in our room and pee in our bed").

The whole experience of reading "Dad is Fat" reminded me very much of my early teen years, when Erma Bombeck's column was a regular feature of the daily paper. (Back then, New Orleans had a daily paper.) While Mom prepared something for the little kids, I would sit at the breakfast table with my bowl of grits (salt and butter, please), hunt down Bombeck's feature ("At Wit's End") and read it out loud, the narration only broken by my choking laughter (sometimes even to tears) and Mom coming to read it herself, one hand on my shoulder, shaking with laughter.

"Dad is Fat" is for real. And I'm recommending this one to all six of my siblings.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Internet Nuns and Nunblogger

There was a lot happening online yesterday, so you can be forgiven if you didn't notice this little piece from the Global Sisters Report (a service that usually focuses on sisters ministering to the disabled in remote areas, serving impoverished families and generally not going online about it): Q & A with Sr. Anne Flanagan.