Sunday, March 18, 2007

Take me back to Assisi...

Assisi is the loveliest town in the world. It's as elvish as Lorien, as grave as Gondor, and as miniature and cheerful as Hobbiton. I was sorely tempted to throw my wallet and my suitcase over a cliff and live there as an anchoress for the rest of my life.

San Stefano by night. This tiny church is where we had Mass during our retreat.

Several of the major sites in Assisi had these strings of doves overhead.

The rose window over the entrance to the lower basilica.

Here I am on top of Rocca Maggiore, with the basilica of St. Francis below.

View of the valley - Porziuncula through the smoke of burning olive leaves.

Midnight after-retreat party! We single-handedly created all the nightlife in Assisi by cramming into this cafe and eating gelato and singing and drinking good beer brewed by monks.

View from piazza of St. Clare's basilica.

Ah, Assisi!

Sarah has some more pictures from Assisi, as well as pictures from the top of Assisi's main fortress, from which you can see the whole town and the fields of Umbria all around.

Rare Catholic Customs

Andreth's comment about knocking on wood jogged my memory, and I thought of an episode in The Path to Rome where Belloc sees a priest on the road and touches an iron key in his pocket. He mentions this action very casually, as if it were a well-known superstition; but I have never heard of such a custom. Does anyone know if this is, or was, a French thing? Or if it has classical precedents? (Belloc had a way of semi-sardonically performing little pagan actions, like pouring wine on the deck of the Nona in the midst of a storm.)

Three years at Christendom have brought many such quirks to my attention. The College has given me innumerable blessings, and not least is the character it has of being a sort of petri dish or scale model of that fabled edifice, the Catholic Culture. We call it the Christendom Bubble; often in scorn, but often as not in gratitude. Once you step inside and remain there for about two years, a remarkable thing happens: something toggles in your mind, and the Catholic worldview becames your default. It's analogous to having "learned" French in high school and then going to live and study in France for four years. Something clicks and then even your dreams are in French. Maybe the Christendom experience isn't that dramatic, at least for people who didn't attend public schools their whole lives, but it seems to come close. The college's Rome program deepens it even further, of course.

(I think the moment I starting "dreaming in French," as it were, was when I first said "Saint Uh-gus-tin" [as opposed to "Ah-guh-steen"] without meaning to.)

So one of the things about living in the Bubble is that you run across random Catholic customs you've never seen or read about. You just notice people doing them, or they mention them in passing. For instance, one of my friends told me to "remember to make a wish" when we went into a certain church in DC. I learned that this friend (and several others) had been told in their childhood that they could make a wish whenever they entered a church they'd never visited before.

There seem to be a lot of customs that have to do with sleeping and dreaming. For instance, some of my CC friends have told me that if you want to know your guardian angel's name, you say a Pater, an Ave, and a Glory Be when you go to bed, and let your desire be the last thing you think of before falling asleep. When you wake up, the first name that comes to mind will be your angel's name. It reminded me of that even more dubious tradition of St. Agnes' Eve, chronicled by Keats, yet more of an urban legend than a real custom - unlike the definitely real labor of the Benedictine nuns over in Trastevere, making palia for all the bishops at "the holy loom / Which none but secret sisterhood may see, / When they St Agnes' wool are weaving piously." (Keats, apparently, also knew the more respectable truth.) Then there are the customs that have to do with water. When we were in Bracciano the other day, one of my friends blessed herself in the lake, just as if it were a huge font. When I asked about this, she said that her dad always blessed himself like that when he came to the ocean or to a large lake. She didn't know why. But it was similar to a custom that turned up on a thread at Amy Welborn's blog awhile back: washing in the sea on the feast of the Assumption in order to get "the cure in the water." If I remember right, everyone who said they had done this was from New Jersey.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Putting the Fear of God In Your Laptop

This is the Catholic way to deal with recalcitrant computers. Sarah was trying to send an email about getting spiritual direction when her laptop crashed, and she promptly detected the hand of the, um, dark side in this. So we invoked St. Isidore of Seville and applied two blessed rosaries, a St. Benedict medal, and a rock from the scavi under St. Cecilia's in Trastevere. Sarah refers to this, somewhat apologetically, as Catholic Voodoo. But seriously! Let it be known that St. Isidore takes an active interest in fixing Roman internet connections, for he has helped me with mine several times, especially when I have promised him a rosary. He's shrewd that way. We finally have the internet in our rooms now, which is a minor miracle.

Related: If you haven't seen it yet, this is Sarah's blog: Winds of Westernesse. It has lots of pictures and detailed descriptions of what we've been doing for the past month and a half. Be sure to read the Epic Story of Christendom creaming Penn State in a ludicrous midnight Palio.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

A Series of Inexplicable Events

This post will contain no epiphanies about Italian culture, history, religion, cookery, courtship, politics, or anything else. It will merely be weird. You have been warned.


One fine chilly day, Sarah and I made our way to St. Peter’s for afternoon Mass. My friend inquired discretely about my coatless state, but I replied cheerfully that my sweater was warm enough. In St. Peter’s, coats are really unnecessary—it’s the only church here I’ve been in that actually feels toasty. How they heat it I can’t imagine. After Mass, which took place under the saffron light of the Holy Spirit window, I sat for a moment finishing my thanksgiving—and a Polish-looking woman suddenly appeared in the pew in front of me and began exhorting me to take her jacket.

I say she looked Polish, but Sarah thinks she looked Scandinavian. She was middle-aged, slight, and sharp featured; and she had tousled, short blond hair. With the air of a professional good Samaritan, she held out a powder-blue nylon jacket while speaking earnestly in Italian. I told her I didn’t want it, but she seemed not to understand, because she said something that sounded like, “No, no - around you,” and she mimed putting on a coat. After some fruitless back and forth, I decided that I had nothing to lose by taking the thing. Certainly there had to be some occult reason that this strange Italian-speaking Scandinavian lady was giving me a blue ski jacket (from an enormous denim knapsack, I observed) behind the high altar at St. Peter’s, of all places—but at this point, I confess, I was dying to find out what it was. So I put on the jacket (which was three sizes too large and redolent of cigarettes), thanked her warmly, and sailed towards the doors as quickly as was decorous. I saw her once more as she descended the steps. She smiled at me, and was gone. Down in the piazza, Sarah began to make a laundry list of the crimes that Jacket Lady was presently going to frame me for. She had sewn a bomb into the jacket. She had stolen the jacket and she had just seen the man she stole it from in the basilica. She was a renegade spy, and she was sending me out in her jacket so that her vengeful minders would poke me with the ricin-tipped umbrella. (Actually, I may have thought up the last one.) Somehow we made it home alive. Back in our room, I examined the jacket. Although it was a ski jacket, it had patches that said “Tortuga, CA – Surfing Instructor” and “Lifeguard.” Then I went through the pockets.

At this point in the story, everyone was all ears. “What? What was in there?!”

“A ball of tinfoil, a razor blade, and a list of dates and places going back to 1989, written in some Eastern European language. There were a couple of words in Arabic.”

“Whooooaaaa! Meredith, you are in the middle of something huge.” Etc.

I enjoyed the pandemonium I had created within the Rome Program, and I still wonder about that list. But as for the tinfoil, it contained only chocolate crumbs; and the razor blade punctured many fantasies when I produced it in its little plastic case. The Jacket Lady could only have used it to shave her legs, not to rake together lines of hypothetical crack.

As I said at the beginning, I’m not sure what this story means. But ever-prudent Sarah has now concluded that the eccentric pilgrim was simply trying to lighten her load.


A fortnight later I fell down the rabbit hole again. This time, though, I had plenty of company. All the students were riding back to Rome after a week spent in Assisi, Florence, and Siena; and we were exhausted by so many wonders. We had made a detour to San Galgano to see the sword in the stone – yes, the original sword – and we had venerated the miracle underlying the fable. A sense of possibility lingered around everything. The darkness outside the bus windows seemed like the darkness of a theater when the scenery is being changed – anything could be concealed there – and the small lights became different things in my mind: factory flares; glowing windows in a small town; the inalienable lamps of that city on a hill that cannot be hidden; Etruscan fox-fires leading the unwary into the dark. Just as I was feeling perfectly stiff and sleepy, the bus stopped to let us get off and move around. I groaned when I saw where we had pulled in. It wasn’t anything so civilized as an Autogrill. There was only a row of grim, rectilinear warehouses in a rain-sodden parking lot.

I wasn’t too keen on seeing the inside, but I went in with my fellow students. Christendom must be extended even to the furthest and most dubious Italian truck-stops, after all. And I was hoping that I could buy some Pringles or something.

A silver turnstile spun us all into the place, whatever it was. The first thing that met our eyes was a long table heaped with bags of gourmet chocolates. The lady over behind the counter urged us to try all the samples. The further we meandered through the room, the more nonplussed we became. I’ve never seen so many different brands of limoncello in one place, and the chocolates and candies were prodigiously varied and expensive. The sausage was wild boar sausage and the cheese was riddled with wine or sliced white truffles. Wines, liqueurs, dried tomatoes... I couldn’t begin to describe it. Most of the signs had Japanese and Cyrillic writing on them, which led us to wonder if the bus companies have a deal to bring all the Japanese tourists through this place. There was clothing, including some overpriced leather jackets, and a whole section of luxurious face creams and cosmetics and such – I found some sort of olive oil moisturizer that was 35 euros, and another jar that may have been 107 euros, unless my eyes deceived me. Christendom was milling around, laughing surreptitiously, sampling the chocolates and the olive oil and tasting the wine with brio. We were the only customers in the store.

As I watched my fellow students gamboling about in this surreal gastronomia, I couldn’t help thinking that the scene was kind of eerie. Maybe that was Circe behind the counter, and the chocolates were going to change us into wild beasts. (If we weren’t already, being hungry college students.) Several people tried to go back through the turnstile, getting only a bruise and a jarring noise for their trouble.

There were more than forty of us, so the samples were getting cleaned out. My friend Anna was feeling bad about it. “I feel like I should buy something,” she said. I considered getting a chocolate frieze of St. Peter’s or of the Mouth of Truth, but 9.50 euro was way too steep. Then I saw a package of curry-flavored chocolate. Anna and I goggled at it and then agreed to split it. Everyone was starting to leave, so I went towards the other clerk at the exit, holding out the chocolate. She smiled, waving her hand magnanimously, and said, “Free! Free!” I stared at her.

“Are you kidding?”


As we ate our spicy chocolate on the bus, Anna tentatively suggested that the Enchanted Truck Stop was a figure of God's grace. At any rate, there is no doubt that it was an expression of some divine caprice.