Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cigarettes & Opera

I almost walked right past him.  

Providing the standard “Sorry, dude” shrug of a person unwilling or unable to provide a beggar with a little change while not wishing to be unkind, I almost kept walking.  I was, after all, on a budget, and Rome is not a cheap place to be.  But as I tucked my hands into my pockets, I paused.  I did have something to offer.  I turned to him and asked, “You smoke?” along with the universal charades action for smoking.  He nodded.  I pulled my shoulder bag around, fished out a few cigarettes, and handed them to the man and his younger friend.  The small black puppy that sat between them declined.  I asked his name.

“Franco,” he replied.  

He was, I would have guessed, in his early sixties, slim and relatively clean-shaven for someone living on the street, keeping himself as clean as he could, combing back his black hair neatly.  He had thoughtful eyes that seemed to inspect the world from an acquiescent distance.  His friend, Antonio, was much younger, probably in his early 30s.  He had a round Roman face, a brief moustache and goatee, and a serious look accentuated by dark hair.  He spoke no English.

Franco, however, asked where I was from.

“Canada,” I said, “but I usually live in California.”

“Oh,” he said, “I live in San Jose for almost 20 years.  I have family there.”

We chatted a little longer, and I learned that he was from Sicily, and that he had a daughter that he had raised in California who remained there.  Finally I shook his hand.

“It was good to meet you, Franco.  Ciao,” I said, and smiled.

“Ciao,” he said, and I walked on.

Jaspar was around the corner.

He lay in front of the little cove in the wall that held a small collection of vending machines which sold everything from bland biscuits to bad espresso.  He thoroughly looked the part of a homeless man.  His pants drooped from his waist.  His dark hair fell messily from the sides of his cap.  And he muttered in Italian something that seemed to have no connection with his outstretched, begging hand.  His eyes scanned the world around him, a world which may have had little to do with the world of the passersby.

I held up a cigarette, and raised my eyebrows in offering.  He smiled and continued his inspection of his world as if to say, “What’s this guy up to?  Yeah, I’ll take a cigarette, you weirdo!”  I gave him two, and offered my hand.

“Uh… Mi nomé ‘Aaron’,” I said in my best accent.

He smiled again in an oh-what-the-hell way and shook my hand.  “Jaspar.”

“ ‘Jaspar’?”


“Mucho…” I almost said, ‘Mucho gusto’, which would have been the wrong latin-based language.  “Nice… Nice to meet you.”

He shook his head and smiled, and I walked on.

I came out of my hostel in the morning, and made my way toward what was quickly becoming “my” little coffee shop, for what had become my morning routine: a cafe latté, a Bible, a journal, and a pen.  My coffee shop stood on the bend in the corner, just beyond Jaspar’s Cove, with a lovely view of the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore that stood across the street.

Jaspar saw me coming, and started smiling and shaking his head.  I gave him two more cigarettes.

That night, , along with Antonio and his puppy, I saw Franco again.  He was in one of his two usual spots.  I greeted him with a handshake, and asked him if he and Antonio wanted a coffee.

“Sure, yes,” he said.  He asked Antonio, who looked at me seriously and nodded.

Espressos, with cream and sugar.  I strolled over to my coffee shop and ordered two coffees.  I returned, hot espresso in thin plastic cups, and hunkered down next to Franco.

“Grazi,” he said, taking a first tentative sip.

“De…”  And I almost said, ‘De nada.’  “Um… Prego.”

Small cars whirred through the street in front of us.  Open-roofed tour buses drove back and forth, shuttling people with sunglasses, large cameras, and larger hats.  I sat with him there for a while, sipping on espresso and watching the cars and the people.  Business men with a Very Important stride, smoking cigarettes, having Very Important conversations on Very Expensive cell phones.  Teenagers with the same giggles as the ones in North America, smoking cigarettes and being boisterous.  Hip young lovers, joined at the hip.  They were smoking, too.  A few priests (some of these also smoking).  Nuns.  Even a monkly robe or two.  And a lot of chubby middle-aged people in socked sandals, holding tourist maps and having a tendency to pointing.  One or two of those people smoked cigars.  

Some people, usually girls, smiled apologetically toward Franco’s begging cup.  A few, both men and women, stopped and gave change.  One or two even stopped a moment and talked and laughed, as if they knew each other (Of course, I couldn’t understand enough to tell).  A few looked disgusted.  Most, however, walked past at a high speed, somehow aware of everything on the street but the outstretched hand below them.  Their world had little to do with the world at their feet.

Franco and I talked a little.  I learned that he was 70 years old, and had no family here.  

Only his daughter in California.  

I spent the day at the Vatican.  I waved hello to the Pope.  I was blessed by a bishop.  I ate the most delicious sandwich in history.  I climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.  And at the end of that day, I sat down with Franco.  People strolled past, and a man stooped to drop some coins in Franco’s cup.

As the man went on his way, Franco inspected the change.  He took a coin and held it between his fingers.

“Where is this from?” he asked.

I looked at it closely.  “I think that’s from… Australia.”

“Australia?”  And he looked at it with some interest.  He reached behind him for his bag, and pulled out a small plastic container that once held butter.  “I collect these.”  

He opened the plastic lid and handed me the collection.  I smiled as I inspected coins from all over the world.

“Ah, this is from Thailand!” I said, holding up a coin with an image of the beloved king of Siam.  “I think I have some change from Canada,” I told him, “back in my room.  I will bring you some coins next time.”

“Si?  Thank-you.  Grazi.”

And the cars rolled by, and the people walked past.

I walked into my coffee shop, and pointed at a pack of cigarettes on the wall behind the counter.

Around the corner, Jaspar sat, back against the wall, legs outstretched and crossed and owning his little piece of the sidewalk.  He saw me coming.  He chucklemuttered under his breath, and shook his head, and smiled.  I handed him a pack of cigarettes.

“boyohboywhoisthiscrazysumbitchAmerican,” he said as we shook hands.  At least, I think that’s the translation.

“Pacé e bené, Jaspar,” I said.  I saluted a casual goodbye, and he smiled and shook his head, and I walked on.

I came back later that evening to Franco’s spot by the wall.  I handed him a small collection of Canadian change.  He smiled and inspected the goods with curiosity.  He held up the coin with the stag’s head.

“A quarter,” I said.  “Twenty-five cents.”

He held up a silver coin with a small rodent emblazoned upon it.

“A nickel.  Five cents,” I told him.  “These here are pennies.  One cent.  And this is a dime.  Ten cents.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and placed them in the container with the rest of his collection.  We sat quietly for a while.

“Franco, do you play music?  Do you…?” and I mimed a guitar.

“No, no.”  And he shook his head, and shook his cup for a passerby.

“Do you like music?  You have a….  A favourite music?”

The corners of his mouth went up just a little.  “Opera,” he said as his eyes met mine.  “I love opera.”

“Opera?  Really?  Wow.  Do you have a favourite opera?”

His eyes showed a spark.  “La Traviata.” And he smiled a smile of rapture and memory.  “Placido Domingo.  Teresa Stratas.  Very beautiful.”

And he began to tell me the story of La Traviata, of the nobleman who fell in love with the woman who strayed.  I don’t know if there is any music that could sing the story better than his eyes.  They were alive with the sadness and the joy of the telling.  He held the story like his first love’s hand, like a child in his arms, and spoke it with abiding affection, with great tenderness.  I felt each moment of love, each moment of heartbreak, like a song; I was present at the lovers’ first kiss, and their last embrace.  When the story came to its end, my own eyes were as misty as the storyteller’s.

And Franco smiled, and the song stayed in his eyes for a while, and he shook his cup of change to the passersby.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Brother Wind

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind,
and for the air and the clouds,
and for fair and every kind of weather,
by which you give your creatures food.

It was cold on the mountain, and not at all like the town of Assisi, which seemed to live in a kind of eternal August afternoon.  Here, several hours north at the mountain of La Verna, the wind was chilly and the mountain covered in cloud.  I was grateful for the thin wool gloves I’d obtained from the friary thrift store, grateful for the sweater (and several layers underneath) I’d brought along from Canada, grateful for the cane which still steadied my gait, and grateful for the quality hiking shoes that covered my feet.  I’d purchased a little guide book from the retreat centre, and it told me there was a trail to climb to the top of the hill, with some interesting sites along the way.  My goal was to reach the chapel built a few hundred years after the time of Francis, the chapel of La Penna, at the top of the rise, 1283 metres above sea level.

I made my way from the friary to the wooded area above, finding the trail which rose and wound its way along the edge of the wooded mountain.  The air was of the kind that seems to freeze your nose hairs in the most invigorating way, and my breath huffed in plumes of white.  Soon, swirling, scattered snow came, carried on the currents up the face of the mountain, so that the snow didn’t seem to descend from the sky, but ascended and whirled among the trees before twirling back down and landing in my beard.  I held out my hand to catch it, and saw that it didn’t come in flakes.  It was soft, and melted in a moment, but it looked like little, white, rock candy.  As if the angels had spilled a heavenly box of Nerds.

The trail came close to the side of the hill, and I veered away to inspect the view.  Trees clawed their way through the rock, holding on to the side of the mountain for dear life.  The cliff, grey and somehow at home in its colour in this kind of weather, descended dramatically as I looked out on the green, roiling landscape below.  This green, too, was somehow alive under this sunless sky; not dreary at all, but vibrant in a different way.  As if the green which bursts with joy in the sun was now in prayer and contemplation.  I put my hand to a gnarled tree, and breathed deeply of the cool, grey sky, and it fed my senses like hungry children.  

But the trail went on, and so did I.  A stirring wind set the tall trees to scattered bursts of applause as my feet snapped the tiny twigs of the forest floor.  The cane steadied my way over slippery patches of stone and up the dubious rises of dirt.  Soon I came to a strange rock that jutted from the side of the mountain like a giant spike.  The head of the spike lay several feet away from the side of the hill, and a confident jumper might have been able to leap across.  One look below, however, and his confidence would fade quickly.  A small, white sign stood with a simple cross on the mossy rock.  In childlike script was written, “MASSO DI FRATE LUPO”.  

The Rock of Brother Wolf.

Saint Francis used to come to this mountain, far from Assisi, for times of retreat with only a few brothers.  Here, a modest church had been built for him by a wealthy count, and he would often spend weeks here in fasting and prayer.  But he was not the only one on these hills.  A thief roamed the mountain, and with him a small band of his own ‘brothers’.  He was violent, and greatly feared, and became known as “Lupo”.  The Wolf.  The Wolf terrorized travellers of the area.  He was known to take people captive, rob them, and toss them out on this small, jutting rock, keeping them there for days or weeks until a ransom was paid.  When The Wolf heard that Francis and his brothers were praying on “his” mountain, he was not pleased.  The Wolf came prowling down to the friars’ chapel, threatening to kill them if they didn’t leave.

But Francis had experience with robbers, and especially with snarling wolves.  He was known to admonish his friends about such men.  “Our Master Jesus Christ, whose Word we have promised to observe, says that the healthy don’t need a physician, but the sick.  He came not to call the just, but sinners to repentance.  This is the reason he sat down and ate with them!”  

And so, when he spoke to The Wolf, he spoke as no one had before.  He spoke without fear.  What exactly Francis said isn’t known, but when the outlaw saw the serenity of Francis in the face of such threats, when he saw that these threats of violence were meaningless to the frail little friar, he also saw something else.  For the first time in his life, he saw love.  Francis looked into the soul of the thief, and saw not a criminal, not an animal, but a brother.  The Wolf fell at the feet of Francis, and wept.  Francis took him tightly into his arms, and welcomed him as Frate Agnello: Brother Lamb.

And a simple cross and a simple sign now stood in simple testimony to a life remade.  

The wind began to blow harder, even through the buffering trees, as the trail continued upward.  I found the rhythm of breath, step, and cane, stepping over knotted roots, treading through fallen leaves and grass.  The rock candy snow had now become a steady rain, falling through the holes in the green canopy above, or blowing straight through the columns of trees.  It fell in drops on my fake tweed cap, and splattered on my face like a spit take.  And it felt good.  

I knew there was supposed to be a chapel at the crest of this hill, but each time I came to what I thought must be the final rise, the trail went further up and further on, teasing me onward, daring me to take chase.  At last, I stepped between a knot of trees and looked ahead.  The rain had turned to mist, and there, standing in majesty and modesty, was the small stone chapel a little known man named Carlo built in 1580.  I smiled and shook my head, and took my cane to a near sprint up to the fabled chapel.

It stood just a few feet back from the precipice of the mountain, nestled like a little brother into the shoulder of flat rock which lay beyond it.  I approached the humble little holy place, placed my hand on the old stones, felt their cold roughness under my fingers.  I have a strong affection for old things, and whenever possible, I like to touch them.  (Though of course here in Italy, a chapel that’s only 430 practically has that “new church smell”.)

A metal door now stood in place of the old wooden one, and it was locked.  But I peeked through the small, square window in the door, into the darkness of the sparse chapel, and imagined the crazy little man who built this place at prayer inside.  I imagined him carrying these blocks of stone from God-knows-where, to this crag at the edge of the woods.  Or did he hire men to do the job, and did they simply shake their heads and thank the Lord that they were getting paid?  

“Clearly, you were quite insane,” I remarked to the long dead brother.

I turned toward the outcrop of rock, which was patiently waiting for me to take in a spectacular view.  I stepped out, my hat now tucked into my bag as the wind grew stronger, pulling at my beard and mussing my hair like an over exuberant uncle.  I opened my arms wide and let the mountain gale play.  I looked out before me.  The view did not disappoint.  Below me were the rolling hills, the valleys, the fields, and beyond it all, the crests of the mountains of Romagna and Umbria.  Small smatterings of houses with white walls and terracotta roofs dotted the earthbound knuckles of the mountains.  To my right, and far below, tiny tufts of white were sprinkled about a meadow of brownish green that lay amongst great swaths of trees.  .  In time I realized the tiny tufts were moving.  A flock of sheep grazed the grasses of a shepherd’s field.

I looked above, or rather to what was now eye-level, at the clouds that came rolling and breaking away from the mists.  They turned and rocked, and patches of sunlight were beginning to break through.  A cloud rolled liked dough over the peak of the mountain on the other side of the valley, slowly but surely making its way over the jagged ridge.  I looked down toward the shepherd’s field again, and my mouth fell open at what I saw.  There, descending from the clouds like a bridge from heaven to earth, was a rainbow of red and yellow and blue and every colour in between.  

Once again, He was being ridiculous.

The wind came again to tussle my hair, and I felt as Adam must have felt, rising from the dust, awakened by the breath of God.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Cross of San Damiano

You have changed me, O God, and all the things I once so longed for, the things I pursued with such ignorant devotion, I see now as meaningless.  Riches, the acclaim of friends, the honour of the elite, all of these are vanity, and I consider them loss.  But where do I go from here?  What do you desire of me?  What would you make of this life?  When I claimed it as my own, I laid claim to it falsely, O Lord.  It is yours, my Jesus.  It always has been.

I desire only to please you, to serve you, to love you.  But there is much darkness in my heart.  There is much inside it that is unknown to me.  There is faith, but it is haunted by doubt.  There is hope, but it is faltering.  There is love, but it bears the flaws of selfishness.

Only the consonants of his whispered prayer could be heard in the vacant church.  A cool breeze blew through its broken stone walls.  Prayers offered here were few now, the pastor who had let him in a shepherd of almost none.  The cross, hanging by rusted chains from the fractured ceiling, swayed slightly in the wind.  The quiet sound of the creaking chains took his eyes to the strange crucifix, and he was reminded of all that so recently had died within him.  

The young soldier, fighting for the honour of his city, had died after a year as a prisoner of war.

The socialite, the life of the party, had died after a year of debilitating illness.

And the crusader, fighting for the glory of God, had died before he even reached the enlistment centre.

What was left was a broken young man whose heart had been awakened to something divine, but whose soul’s compass could find no bearing.  

His knees were sore from kneeling–he had been here for hours–but he wasn’t finished yet.  His eyes were fixed on the cross above him.  It was a crucifix unlike most others that he’d seen.  It was foreign in its iconography, in the style of the churches of the East. Angels and apostles crowded at the Christ’s feet, by his side and at his head.  Francis’s eyes read the figures like a story, and he saw himself in each one.  Betrayer, sinner, repentant friend, and worshiper.  Blood flowed softly from the palms of Christ, and from his side, a small fountain poured forth.  His eyes remained on that little fountain for a long time.  A small centurion was pictured at the side of Christ, and Francis saw in him an image not unlike himself: a small bird, stretching out his neck, desperate to fill his gullet with life.

And now, he looked into the eyes of Jesus.  They were large and steady and gentle and strong.  He looked at the mouth of Jesus.  This Christ’s lips, too, were different from those on any icon he’d yet seen, though he could not at first identify how.  Folded hands to his own lips, he squinted a little longer at the mouth of Jesus.  

Jesus was smiling.  

From the cross, he was smiling.  Perplexed, Francis looked to the Christ’s head, expecting a crown of thorns.  But they were absent.  Only a halo encircled his head.  And then something came dawning on him like sun through a window.  Of course there was no crown of thorns.  Of course he was smiling.  The Christ which rested on this cross was not the Crucified One, but the Risen One.  His arms were outstretched not in crucifixion, but in welcome.  This Christ was alive, and giving life to his beloved.

The glorious, risen, joyful Christ smiled down upon him from his now beautiful cross.  Francis smiled back, and a prayer came flowing from his very soul, rolling like a river from his lips.

“Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart!  Give me right faith, sure hope and perfect charity.  Fill me with understanding and knowledge that I may fulfill your command.”

He stared in silence at the risen Jesus.  He was wordless now, joyously, peacefully wordless.  His anxiety lay on the floor beneath him like a shed garment.  The two figures remained, their eyes locked in the steady gaze of love.  He could not later recount how long he had knelt there, staring at him, when that Jesus’ pleasant lips parted.

“Francis,” he said, “go and rebuild my church, which, as you can see, is falling into ruin.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Franciscan Pilgrimage: Single

It’s not an easy thing to be single and thirty-seven.

Granted, there are infinitely more difficult things to be, but it can be a challenge.  I’ve felt confident of my call to remain single for several years now.  I remember the day I “heard” it.  I don’t think it could have been more clear had an audible voice come down, accompanied by a singing dove and a heavenly mariachi band.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but it was very clear.  I felt it in my soul, down deep, on the stone table that rests at the centre of every heart.  It was clear and direct and felt like freedom.  And it was true.  I’ve never doubted it.  Well, at least not for more than a second or two.  

Of course, those second-or-twos can last a very long time.  I see a husband and wife exchange a kiss, or a look, or even a thoughtless touch that represents everything beautiful about love, and there’s a second-or-two.  A dad side-hugs his boy in the coffee shop line-up.  A girl holds her father’s hand in the pew at church.  There’s a second-or-two.  It’s then that those second-or-twos can jump out of time and remain in a state of suspended eternity.  

But it’s a good life, and there are times when I am reminded that this is just the life for me.  Like when I’m standing alone on a mountain in a foreign land.  Or when I’m praying with a weeping drunk at midnight.  When I’m sitting on the street next to a homeless friend and a passerby gives us both some spare change.  These are good moments for me.  I am at peace with who I am in those moments.  I am at peace with my calling.

But there are other moments, and these are neither about doubting my calling or being confident of it.  They are the moments when I simply wish my inward call had an outward sign.  These are moments when I very badly want something to cling to: a stamp, a symbol, a seal.  A kind of spiritual wedding ring to show people, when they say things like, “Now when are you getting married?” or, “Oh, you think you’re a bachelor, but when the right one comes along…!” or my personal favourite, “Wow, you must have been really burned!”  In those moments, an outward sign could make things a little easier.  “Oh no,” I could say, “See my collar?  I’m a priest.  ”  Or, “Oh, no.  See my awesome habit?  I’m a Franciscan Brother.”  People don’t generally approach a Roman Collar or a man in an imposing brown robe and say, “Well I think you just haven’t met the right girl yet!”

Of course, priesthood or brother-hood may yet be in my future, but I don’t know for certain.  (And if you thought this story of chasing Francis to Assisi was going to be about me finding out, you’re wrong.)  It’s not for lack of prayers or desire or even trying.  Ironically, it’s a bit like finding a girl.  There has to be some stirring in the heart, some romance, and some sense of knowing.  But I still want the sign, the vows, and it’s a little weird when you want to give all of who you are to God’s service by the promise of a sacred vow, and he seems to be the one saying, “It’s just a piece of paper, baby!”

This all becomes very tricky when discerning the next phase of one’s vocation.  What if I only want to be a priest so that I can have a quick label with which to identify myself?  Do I want to take Franciscan vows for a more palpable sense of identity?  (After all, that friar’s robe is pretty impressive.)

Why do I want to take these vows?  Have I not committed myself to them already?  I live below the poverty line; I try to be generous and unconcerned with money.  I am prudent and chaste and committed to celibacy.  I want to follow and do the will of God, to be obedient to whatever and wherever he calls me to be.  Are these personal commitments to poverty, chastity and obedience not enough?  If they are not, who is it they are not enough for?  My ego?  My sense of identity?  But is there not something pure and beautiful in this desire for vows as well?  These questions walked close behind me through the streets of Assisi, they walked beside me on its mountain paths, they knelt down next to me in its holy places.

And so, Lord, I am tossed by the wind from peace to anxiety.  To be secure, to be anchored, I must descend to the depths and understand a little more about the mysteries that motivate me.  I’ve descended down into the depths of my heart before, and it’s dark there, and all I have to light my way is the moonlight trailing in from above.  But I want to do your will, God; I want to please you; I want to serve you.  So I pray as Brother Francis did eight centuries before me:  Most High and Glorious God, illuminate the darkness of my heart.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

...And the Stars.

“We walk back now to San Damiano.  There is special service tonight for Francesco.  Would you like to go with us?”  Armando spoke english well, but that Italian song still rang out in words like ‘San Damiano’ and ‘Francesco’.  “It is not far,” he added.

The evening had been spent at the ‘Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli’ (which is a fun and lovely phrase to say in Italian).  This basilica was built overtop the small chapel that Francis and the brothers called “the Little Portion”, or “Porziuncola” (It took me a while to get the correct “tune” for that word.  It’s something like, “PortsYOONco-lah!”).  When I say that it was built overtop the old chapel, I don’t mean that it was built on its ruined foundations.  I mean that inside the basilica still stands the little chapel.  It was by this chapel in the clearing of a small forest in the Spoleto Valley that the first brothers lived in a grouping of simple huts, like pups clustered around their mother.  It was here that Francis and his friends lived and prayed and served the poor together and found in this humble church their source of life and communion.

Today was his “transitus”, the anniversary of Saint Francis’s death.  Each year the modern town of Assisi, which lays at the foot of the old, hilltop town, celebrates the saint with festivities unlike anything one would ever see in North America.  There is fire involved.  Lots of fire. Men running around on fire.  But that’s another story.

Armando wasn’t lying when he said it wasn’t far from here to San Damiano, he just had a different definition of “not far” than I did.  I had walked from San Damiano to the Basilica earlier that day, so I had a pretty good idea of just how far it was.  Before I ran into them tonight, I had planned on catching the bus back to the old town.  I considered his offer for a moment, and remembered my first rule of the road:  “Always say yes.”

“Sure,” I said.

“We know a better way.  No cars.”

“Sounds good.”

Forty minutes later, we were walking in the moonlight along a darkened path to the old church on the hill.  As usual, Giovanni was fifty paces ahead of us, with a dog named Grizzo in tow.  Grizzo belonged to Flavia, a student friend of the group, who often left him in the care of Giovanni.  He was a perfect dog.  Like the family taking care of him, he was of a smaller frame, but a true dog’s dog through and through.  A beautiful mutt, he was regularly showered with hugs and kisses from Giovanni.

Leaning on my cane as I walked (it had become a part of me that week), I looked to the left, and saw what used to be the Big Dipper.  Margherita had given me the proper Italian name.

Il Grande Carro,” she’d said.  “Like, ah, the car.  But from before, with the horse.  Carro.

Indeed, it only lacked a horse.  Now that I’d seen it that way, it looked much more like a cart than some boxy celestial spoon.  I looked from the Spoleto stars to the old city of Assisi ahead of us, and I was a little confounded by what I saw.  It was glimmering mysteriously, as if the tops of its walls had somehow been enchanted.  The glow was not electric.  It was too fluid for that, too beautiful.  It shimmered and flickered, and the old city shone like some kind of earthbound constellation, a descending New Jerusalem.

“Armando, what is…,” and I pointed, “this.  Is that…?”

“Is, ah, foculo.  Fire.”

“Fire?  Really?”

“Si.  Fire.”

There is a funny story about Francis and Claire.  One night, Claire came down from San Damiano (she and her new order of sisters had moved into the church some time after Francis had rebuilt it).  Francis and a few of the brothers had prepared a picnic meal of all the food that was available: bread and water.  But Claire received it with joy, and the few brothers and sisters went into the woods for an evening meal.  Soon, what began as a simple blessing over their bread and water became an old fashioned praise and worship jamboree.  They prayed and sang together under Umbrian moon to the God they so dearly loved.

Unbeknownst to them, a strange, orange glow rose up from them, many times greater than their small campfire.  The light of it was so bright that the townspeople thought the forest around the hermitage was ablaze, and threatening to destroy the beloved Little Portion.  They scooped up buckets of water and rushed to the source of the strange light, only to find Francis and Claire and a tiny group of brothers and sisters praying and singing together, filling the night sky with their praises.

 I wondered if this story had something to do with the presumably safely burning city I now saw above me, glowing in a strange communion with the stars and the satisfied moon.  Like the stars, the city on the hill seemed to speak of some mystery, something unknown but beautiful nonetheless.  Walking these paths was a mystery, too.  But my companions knew where they were headed, and the guide up ahead, staff in hand and dog at his side, knew the path well.  The moon and stars would be light enough.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Franciscan Pilgrimage: Sister Moon.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
you formed them in the sky,
bright, and precious, and beautiful.

The streets were quiet, and the footsteps of my hiking shoes made a slow, reflective rhythm with the tup-tup-tup of my cane.  Moonlight mingled with streetlight and lined the old stone walls of the crooked streets.  It was a lovely night to get lost.  This city was old and romantic, exactly as one whose imagination was fed by Hollywood and informed by fantasy would hope it would be.

The taste of chocolate lingered on my tongue.  My first day in Assisi had begun with adversity and finished in friendship.  Margherita and Mariella, Armando and Giovanni and I communed over cigarettes and ice cream after vespers.  The song of the friars at San Damiano stayed with me, and I found myself humming a familiar tune with Italian words half remembered.  Grace had overwhelmed me, and thankfulness was a light to my path.  That, and the aforementioned street lights.

A song came wandering through the old streets.  I stopped, strained to hear, and followed it.  Turning a corner here, stopping to listen there, and rounding another turn I finally came to the source.  Old doors stood in arched stone.  A window, propped open and filled with light, poured forth music.  I stood and listened to the sound of angels at rehearsal.  A chorus of men and women stopped and started a song I’d never heard as I took a seat on the stone steps on the opposite side of the street.  I laid my new cane across my knees.  The old streets, the ancient bricks, the night sky.  All of these things infused this disembodied song with a kind of mysterious joy, and I couldn’t help but be delighted.

As the chorus went on rehearsing, I wondered how old the steps were on which I was seated.  A block of stone set in the bricks of the wall behind me bore an inscription, and I craned my neck and squinted my eyes to see what it said.  “ ‘HIC… Franciscvm… something something… Bernardvs… Qvintavillus… something… extasim vidit.’  Well, something happened here.  That’s cool, I guess.”

This was a good time to smoke.  I retrieved it from my trusty bag, and thoughtfully packed my pipe as the singers sang on.  Shielding the pipe from the breeze, I tipped Bic to briar, and soon had a nicely burning bowl.  I watched the smoke rise to the moon and was reminded of how the Natives back home see tobacco.  It is sacred, because it is born of the earth, and as it is shared it ascends to the heavens.  Here on these historic steps, with these holy voices, the smoke did seem sacred, and my prayers rose as it twirled toward the moon and stars.

A long time later, with the taste of tobacco still on my tongue, the scent of smoke in my beard, I took up my cane and walked on.  It was only a few steps and another moment later that the night began to sing another song to me.  It drew stronger as I drew closer.  I looked up to the source.  It came from an ancient upper window, and filled the cobblestone street with its simple anthem:  

Here I am.  Rock me like a hurricane.

Amen, Lord.  Amen.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Franciscan Pilgrimage: Brother Sun

I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
From where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth
God will not allow your foot to slip,
your guardian does not sleep.
Truly, the guardian of Israel 
never slumbers nor sleeps.
The Lord is your guardian;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand
By day the sun cannot harm you,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will guard you from all evil,
will always guard your life.
The Lord will guard your coming and going
both now and forever.
-psalm 121

And so we begin a story.

Some stories, however, are better told out of order.  Rather, out of time, for the order is as it should be, like a rhyming poem.  It’s only time that gets jumbled up.  

The sun was golden and bright, and gave to every leaf and budding plant the halo it truly deserved.  I stood on the hillside of Assisi, ambling painfully on a sprained ankle down the path to the church of San Damiano.  Olive trees leaned gracefully into the bowing sun.  Bushes bursting with berries of red and orange lined the road.  My right ankle throbbed, and my heart glowed like a bronze mirror in the glistening sun.  A prayer, true and rich, came whispering out of my mouth.

“You’re kidding me.  You must be joking with me.”

There are moments when a man is so awakened by the beauty of the world around him that he realizes just what God is doing when he spreads such a sunset on the land: that he is going far beyond what is necessary or expected with the beauty he chooses to reveal.  In such a moment, God is on the floor, on his back, tickling and giving airplane rides.  He is being ridiculous.  Grace is ridiculous.  It’s a joke, and once in a while a man can be listening well enough to get it.  Once in a while, a man laughs.

When the sun had arisen that morning in Rome, I had no foot injuries.  I was packing my quick-dry camping towel and giving my bed at the hostel its third once-over (I find it best to do three once-overs.  You can miss so much on the first and second, and wind up having left your toothbrush or your passport in a room that’s now a hundred miles away).  I settled my bill, drank a complimentary machine-brewed cappuccino, and headed out the door into the wide, cobblestone street.  With a spring in my step, I glanced back at the lady lingering by the hostel door.  But I sprung the spring too far.  I tripped on a bit of that oh-so-charming cobblestone and felt a shock of pain envelop my foot.  

I cursed and winced, and walked on, limping profoundly, to find a place to stop and inspect my injury.  “Really didn’t need that to happen.  Aaah… God…  That is a shame.  Ow…”

I crouched low, felt the tender ankle, and tightened my shoelaces.  It was the best I could do for the moment.

“You totally let my foot slip,” I muttered.  Psalm 121 had become my theme for this journey.  I was disappointed to find out that the bit about a foot not slipping was perhaps metaphorical.

I walked on to the train station.  With great difficulty in language comprehension, much walking, and even more standing and staring at the mysterious timetable, I deciphered that I would have to wait a goodly long time for the next train to Assisi.  Hours later, and with some continued confusion, I finally found myself at the Basilica Di San Francesco in Assisi, asking an Italian friar about places to stay.

I should at this point note that there is a recurring theme whenever I travel.  I can never, ever book ahead.  Try as I might to contact a hostel or pilgrim house or monastery, I simply never get a response.  It’s weird.  In Italy, I was informed that most guest houses don’t take bookings through the internet anyway.  Usually, my improvisational way of finding accommodations works out well enough, though.  It can be temporarily frustrating, but usually, with a little walking, something is found.

Usually.  With a little walking around.

Newly acquired tourist map in one hand and a list of guesthouses in the other, I climbed the steep streets of Assisi, exhausted, limping, baking in the Umbrian sun.  Let me tell you, that little walking-till-something-is-found part is not so little when you’re carrying your life on your back.  And you’ve arrived in a city that was built on a dad-gum hill.  And every dad-gum guesthouse is dad-gum full of dad-gum tourists and pilgrims and tour groups.  And you’ve just badly sprained your dad-gum ankle.  (“You pack so light!” everyone says.  This is inaccurate.  I pack as few things as possible.  Trust me, this is not the same as packing “light”)

“Something will work out.  It always does.”

Honestly, I knew it would.  But my ankle hurt.  And my backpack was heavy.  I passed by an elderly woman, hunched over with some kind of back problem, one foot in some sort of cast, ambling awkwardly along the narrow street. 

“Lord,” I muttered, “may I never, ever, ever complain about anything.  Ever.”

I had climbed almost to the top of the city now, with many a disembodied voice over an intercom, or on occasion an apologetic nun, informing me that there was no room at the inn.  I passed by a little shop with ice cream for sale.  Gelato.  I stopped.  I looked back at the illustrated sign.  I had not yet tasted this famous Italian treat.  I heaved a sigh.

“Screw it.  I’m getting an ice cream.”

A few minutes later, I was seated at a table on the street with my backpack on the ground beside me, thoroughly enjoying a cold, creamy treat.  A lady sat at a nearby table, enjoying some ice cream of her own.  With a little english, she asked me to watch her purse for a minute.  “Si, si,” I said, giving a thumbs-up sign.  I must have looked trustworthy.  Or maybe people here are generally more trusting.  Anyway, she was back momentarily.  At a table nearby sat a group of old Italian men, discussing something or other in exactly the stereotypical manner a tourist like me would hope they would.  The lady rolled her eyes and made the yap-yap-yapping sign with her hand.  We began to talk, as is customary in these settings, with the expected question.

“Where are you from?”

I told her I was from Canada.  She told me her name was Margherita.  She was thin of frame, with long, full reddish black hair that, with her free and easy manner, made her younger than her actual years.  She smiled well, and often, and was happy that I had come to Assisi.

“Every night I go to vespers at San Damiano.  You should come.  Seven o’clock.  It is very beautiful.  Very spiritual.”

I agreed that I should, assuming that I would find a place to stay by that time.  And then, she was swept along as if by the wind, smiling and waggling her fingers, with an easy “Ciao!” on her lips.

I sat a little longer.  I took a deep breath.  “Alright.  Let’s go.”

An hour later, with no guest house to be found, I found myself hesitantly entering the lobby of a hotel.  I set my price limit in my mind and approached the desk.  The lady told me their rates, and I let out a long, slow exhale.

“You look for something… sheaper?”

I sighed.  “Si.”

“Let me make a call.  I know a man at another place.  They are sheaper.  Maybe they have room.”

Twenty minutes later, I was checked in at another accommodation that was three times ‘sheaper’ than the hotel.  I hobbled up the stairs to my room.  As the backpack slipped from my shoulders, I was reminded of that scene from ‘The Mission’, when DeNiro is freed from carrying the the debilitating weight of his penance.  Like DeNiro, I nearly cried with gratitude as I flopped down on the miniature bed.

Evening came as I ventured forth, limping but a little happier, to go down to the church of San Damiano.  The streets were a little kinder now, and I allowed myself the time to take them in.  There were souvenir shops and cafés, strange and winding turns, tourists and pilgrims in strange attire, and a church glowing gold in the falling sun.  I followed the tourist’s map to the walkway which would lead to San Damiano, taking each step of the stairs with caution.  I came to a narrow road that cascaded down the hill.  I stopped along the way, and found myself staring out at a scene that had come to life from a storybook.  I realized that all those classical Italian landscape paintings were not just from fantastical human imaginations.  They were inspired by Someone Else’s fantastical imagination.  My lips parted in a gentle kind of awe.

“You are being ridiculous.  You’re kidding me.  You must be joking with me.”

I came to a childlike painting set in a grated shrine at adjoining stone walls. A simple sign sat below it which read “SAN DAMIANO,” with an arrow pointing to the right.  I followed the arrow to the small friary, where pilgrims and praying folk gathered with the friars to worship God.  An hour-and-change later, I stepped out of the small chapel of San Damiano.  Margherita found me and smiled.  She was standing with an earthy-looking couple and their son.

“My friends and I, we go get ice cream after the vespers.  Would you like to come?”

What a silly question.  

We began the climb up the hill to the old city.  The climb was slow, and my ankle was unimpressed with my choosing to come down in the first place, but there was company, and this always makes a hard walk a little easier.  

Armando was in his fifties, small of stature with a distinguished, if Bohemian, beard and thinning ponytail.  He spoke a little english, and he was friendly.  His wife Mariella spoke no english, and had a smile that was both a little weary and endearing.  She, too, was small of frame, and her hair was pulled back in the style of a woman who wants to keep things simple.  Giovanni, their son of about 12, wore a red Che Guevera t-shirt and an oversized newsie cap over his long, frizzy, ponytailed hair.  He smiled shyly, as a kid does when meeting a foreigner.  Margherita led on.

“This one, it has the best ice cream.  And they give me Italian price, not tourist price!” she said as we approached a small shop which advertised gelato.  I chose my ice cream wisely (though I could tell there was no way to choose poorly).  We sat outside, and I tried with moderate success to eat an ice cream cone with a beard.  (I had the beard, not the cone.)  Margherita rolled herself a cigarette, as did Armando.  

Our conversation was pleasant, and peppered with the smiles and laughs of two languages trying to make sense of one another.  Margherita translated, Armando spoke a little self-conscious english, and his wife spoke so swiftly in Italian that it sounded made-up.  I learned that Armando and his family were camping on the hillside between Assisi and San Damiano.  They had been there for several months.  As near as I could understand, it seemed that they came and went from Assisi often over the years.  They seemed to live “off the grid”.

“Tomorrow, do you want that we meet for coffee?  I can show you around Assisi.  It will be wonderful.”  Margherita smiled, gracefully holding her cigarette and awaiting my reply.

“Sure!  Yes, that would be great,” I said.

Soon we parted ways, double-kissing in the Italian style and waving goodbyes as I headed toward my guesthouse.  The streets were quiet, but warm with shop lights and open doors.  Along the way, I wandered into a little shop, where I found several canes for sale.  I chose the simple, black wooden one.  It was ten euros.  It was the wisest ten euros I had ever spent.

That night I lay on my tiny bed, the ache of a sprained ankle reminded me that even it had played a role in what had become a very good day.  After all, without that twisted ankle, those booked-up rooms, without that confusion and delay, I would never have stopped for a rest and some ice cream and met a new friend.  A phrase imprinted itself on my mind: “Adversity is the left hand of providence.”

The memory of kindness, of haloed trees, of the sun’s evening song, took me slowly to sleep.  

So it was every evening in Assisi, with vespers and sunsets.  The sun would bow low to the earth, as a knight to his lady, and kiss her hand, and bid her good-night. 

Praise be to Thee my Lord, with all thy creatures.
Especially for Master Brother Sun, 
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
and Thee, Most High, he manifests. 
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Mountains and Moleskines


The mountains of British Columbia had imprinted themselves on my soul, and the memory of green trees, of white clouds swirling in blue, would return to me whenever I closed my eyes.  

I sat by a window in the Vancouver airport, jotting thoughts in my Moleskine journal and sketching with simple lines the recollection of a Victoria shoreline.  The fact that I was about to board a plane to Rome was not yet quite real.  For a long time, I had imagined what it might be like to visit Assisi, as in ‘St. Francis of ’, but until now the dream never had the option of becoming real.

Francis had first captured my imagination many years before, in the hippyish vision of a square Italian filmmaker and in the poetry of a contemporary Christian folk singer.  He was a joyful, if mysterious, figure; a man who communed with nature and loved the poor.

But Francis began to take on flesh and form, to walk among my thoughts and days, when I moved to California.  Though I had been involved with Youth With A Mission (‘YWAM’ for short) almost since leaving high school, I had imagined that I would eventually move into the world of acting and comedy, and while I worked with our small YWAM team in Kitchener, Ontario, I was taking classes and becoming involved with The Second City in Toronto.  I had done very well there, and when I auditioned for the touring company (the first step toward the Main Stage), I was taken on as an understudy.  It was around this time that my plans for a career in acting hit the first bump on the railway tracks.

My friend and fellow YWAMers Chris and Amie had moved down to Modesto, California to begin a work among the poor and homeless of the Central Valley town.  When, at around the time of my audition, Chris came for a visit to tell about this burgeoning mission, I began to wonder.  I wondered if God might not be calling me to something different from what I had been planning on.  Later that year, as I studied Second City scripts in preparation for that call from the troupe that as yet had not come, I took a three week excursion to Modesto.

And while we walked through those October days, handing out bread, talking with homeless guys and laughing together, something dangerous started happening in my heart.  And sure enough, as the plane lifted off from SFO, I knew that I was leaving home.

A short time later, I had made my decision, and my resolve was sure.  I was going to move to Modesto.  Cue the phone call from Second City.

“Hey, man.  We loved your audition, but there wasn’t a place for you at the time.  But something’s opened up, and if you’d like to, we’d love to have you be part of the touring company!”

I took a deep breath.  “Actually, I kinda just made a big decision….”

For about five minutes I wondered what the H I had just done.  But it didn’t take long to realize that, in a weird way, this was God’s stamp of approval.  I wasn’t leaving behind a career in comedy because I wasn’t good enough.  I was leaving for something better.  Something unknown, but something better.

So it was that I arrived in Modesto the following February.  I went there to help a good friend begin a small, simple work, and, like Francis and his first companions, we didn’t know what we were doing.  We just wanted to hang out with homeless people.  Within a year, two more good friends of ours moved their family to Modesto, and suddenly we were a community.

It was around then that another artist, a Greek novelist, came to me with his own vision of Francis, and the first “friar minor” would become more than just a distant figure that served as a bit of inspiration.  He would forever be part of my consciousness. 

His life of simplicity, his great love for those people the world found the most difficult to love, and his holy way of being quite insane would be character traits which I would continually long for and pray for.  I even began to wonder if I might be called to be a Franciscan friar, and went so far as to prayerfully contemplate this with a group of Franciscans from Sacramento.  I attended a weekend retreat at a friary in southern California that, along with those artistic visions of Francis, would ultimately help to form my Franciscan consciousness.  (When my car blew up, that weekend retreat was extended to nearly a week, but that’s another story.  Let’s just say that if you’re stranded somewhere, it’s nice to be stranded in a Franciscan Mission.)

Ultimately, however, I had decided that I was not being called away from our work in Modesto to join the Franciscans.  For good or ill, I had become too attached to the community that had been born there in that town that, like Assisi, was full of both the poor and the prosperous.  Our little community was flourishing, in its own way, and I chose to believe that my calling lay in some way with this strange little band of brothers, sisters, mentors and friends.

It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise when I was kicked out of the country.

Well, “kicked out” is a harsh term, if not precisely inaccurate.  For most of the seven and a half years I had spent in California, confusion and miscommunication had reigned over my visa situation.  And while I did my best to do exactly as I was told by the myriad of officials with differing opinions, Immigration officers would inevitably open my passport and make the scrunched-up face of a person who just doesn’t get it.  Finally, after two botched Green Card applications, I consulted a lawyer.  More correctly, I consulted a lawyer that actually knew what he was talking about.  On a trip to LA, Chris, friend and brother, sat with me at the lawyer’s desk, anxiously awaiting what wisdom would come from the barrister’s mouth.  

The words “leave the country” were not what we were expecting.  The lawyer advised me that it would be best for me to leave the US for at least one year, and return with a fresh, new visa when my time was up.  

The drive along the 99 from LA to Modesto was a melancholy one to say the least. 

Taking the lawyer’s advice, I said good-bye to my Modesto home, and returned to Canada in time for Christmas.  I still felt relatively sure that God still wanted me in California, that I would return just as soon as the government allowed.  But an experience like this tends to shake up your world, and can make all those things that you thought you saw so clearly become more than a little blurry.

Though I had decided that joining the Franciscans in California was not a “fit” for me, the desire to live a truly Franciscan life had remained.  With this year ahead looking hazy, so uncertain, my thoughts began to swirl.  Was there a message somewhere in all this?  Was God trying to get my attention?  Was there something I wasn’t seeing?  As I began this “year in exile,” (as I started to call it) questions remained about if, where, or how I might formally take the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Thus began a year of being virtually homeless, and oddly free.  I started by spending three months in Thailand.  Jimmy and Kelly and their children had felt the call to move from our Modesto community and begin a work in Thailand.  They were working to build friendship and give support to struggling Burmese families and children living on the Thai/Burma border, and to minister to other missionaries taking on difficult tasks and no small amount of heartbreak.  My time with them is the stuff of another story, but let it suffice to say that there were literally blood, sweat, and tears.  It was a time rich with love, troubles, frustration and friendship, and I will never forget it.

From Thailand, I had been led to a three week adventure of faith in Israel, a family trip to Holland, back to Ontario, and on to beautiful British Columbia.  What began as a commitment to one month at a Native reservation on Vancouver Island soon became a three-month experience of immersing myself in the people and place of some of the most gorgeous land in Canada, and creating new friendships among the poor of nearby Victoria and those that worked to bless them.  I was witness to an immense and gracious beauty.  There were eagles soaring over salt water, and baby seals greeting me on a wood-lined shore.  There were Fry Bread Fridays with elders and friends in the Native community.  And there were people like Charlie and Carly living with little-to-nothing on the streets of Victoria.  There were days spent with good friends, and fishing poles on open waters, and drives down winding island roads (which the deer so graciously shared with us).

But finally, in mid-September, it felt like it was time for another adventure.

The idea of visiting Assisi, of a pilgrimage to the home town of the saint who had so influenced the desires of my heart and so shaped the landscape of my dreams, had been hiding in the back of my mind since my year of exile began.  When I realized that actually making it happen was within the realm of the possible, I nervously clicked the “purchase” button on the discount airfare website.  I had just enough to get there.  Remaining there for three weeks, however, was another matter.

All of this had now resulted in a man with an army surplus backpack and a lightly dented MacBook sitting on the sill of a window of Gate 23, taking in the tall trees of British Columbia one last time.  The world, charged as it is with the grandeur of God (to paraphrase and plagiarize a poet), had sung to me songs of providence and trust.  The sky was overcast, but calling nonetheless.  I had no choice but to follow.

All-highest, Almighty Good Lord,
to you be praise, glory, and honour
and every blessing;
To you alone are they due,
and no man is worthy to speak your name.