Thursday, October 19, 2017

Oiling the Way to a Better Result

Day 11, Part 1

The olive oil co-op in Spello — “Frantoio di Spello” — nestles in the valley a casual walk beyond the walls of the village. Founded in 1947 by local olive growers in the midst of significant post-war social and economic challenges to exercise greater control over the processing of their fruit and the resulting oil, the co-op has grown and modernized into today’s award winning enterprise.

The tour for our foursome included a beautiful introductory video, and then a curated walk among the equipment, following the path of the fruit from entrance in the large plastic crates, through the destemmer and washer, up augers and along conveyers, into the grinder and ultimately into the centrifuge.

A centrifuge. Once upon a time, our guide noted, the oil was extracted by pressing — by squeezing the pomace with enough force that the oil was literally wrung out of it. The operators have discovered that a better oil is produced using centrifugal force — separating the solid matter from the precious oil by outward motion rather than downward compression.

The tour continued on — through the subsequent steps of filtration, storage in the large, temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, and ultimately bottling for sale. And, yes, we got to taste…and ultimately purchase…that final result. 

But my imagination lingered behind, around that centrifuge and its science of evocation — spinning off rather than crushing out. And I thought of all the myriad ways I wish that insight and methodology would be employed in other arenas of life — in the conduct of religion, in the school system’s development of minds, in personnel management and corporate climate…

…in international diplomacy, in economic expansion and development…

…in moral and political discourse.

The olive growers around Spello have recognized that brute force is an archaic methodology and results in an inferior product. The better oil is evoked; not squeezed. Would that the rest of us could take their lead; abandoning our own archaic reliance on sheer weight and pressure and “shock and awe” domination…

…in pursuit of a better product.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

When Dinner is More Than Food

Day 10

Tonight was our night to host. Our friends have been so gracious and extraordinarily generous that we were anxious to offer some hospitality as well. There is, in scripture the admonishment to “show hospitality to strangers because you might be entertaining angels unawares.” We were none so ambiguous. We had not known them well before this visit, but upon arriving here a little over a week ago it did not take long to perceive their wings. They have been for us angels extraordinaire.

And so we planned this evening. We considered our limited kitchen and what might be reasonably workable.

First thing this morning we set out to gather supplies. We made a run to Patricia’s vegetable shop for this and that.

We stopped by Giovanna’s bakery for fresh bread.

We struck out along the byways to forage for rosemary, oregano and bay. We stopped by the market to pick up sausage, and the specialty shop for pasta. And late afternoon, we set to work.

And it all turned out fine. But here is the thing: it wasn’t about the food. Sure, we ate — we enjoyed our way through the courses — but the nourishment of the evening had far more to do with the conversation, the reflections, the music and the dancing than about the food.

Which is, when it’s right, always the case.

We lamented global affairs. We pondered matters of the heart. We imagined something better. We toasted the glimpses of “better” already encouraging us on. We listened to stories, and told our own. And we did our best to pay attention…to each other…to here…to now, recognizing that there remains yet much that we are too deaf and blind to see, resolving to continue clearing and sharpening our eyes and ears for the blessed privilege of living.

And we wondered how still to make a difference — even now in a world where gunmen massacre concert goers, where hurricane victims wait weeks for food and water and power, where politicians turn deaf ears and religious figures spout nonsensical absurdities that bastardize the gospel and ignore “the least of these.”

Because “even now” this world matters, despite our lover’s quarrel with it. Because “even now” our frustration and aggravation and lament are b
orn of our prayerful ache for better.

And we got to share the longing together — as the real “main course” of our dinner together. Here in Spello, in this small and somewhat remote village that intuitively and routinely seems to understand and welcome strangers and residents alike into a better way.

Tomorrow we will go and do other things. Tonight, though, as the streetlights popped on and the traffic slowed, we gave ourselves up to the spirit of Spello: laughing, sharing, knowing, lamenting, hoping, and entrusting ourselves to the care of each other.

All that, and then we had dessert.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On Getting Lost and Then Found

Day 9

Lori fell today. That was neither the high nor the low point, but it was a particularly memorable part.

We had caught the morning train to Perugia, the capital city of Umbria, a half-hour or so away. It is, by local standards, a big city with a large Cathedral, a spectacular art museum, a university, and all the hubbub one can expect in an urban center. Plus, it’s famous for chocolate, so of course we went.

The day started out with challenges. The ticket machine at the Spello station wasn’t working, so the conductor calmed us by selling them to us onboard. We almost got off the train at the wrong stop, but were saved from travel purgatory by a benevolent stranger who simply asserted, “next one.” Once emptied into the correct train station, we caught the bus to the central piazza, tracked down an ATM to refuel our wallets, but kept getting error messages. We walked, mostly around wrong turns, but ultimately visited the essentials we had intended.

Those, after a delightful pastry and coffee at a sidewalk cafe, which preceded by several hours a perfect lunch at a perfect osteria on which we had all but given up, located as it was at the center of a maze of tiny streets that confused even Google maps. But it was worth our persistence. And we hated to leave. But we still had chocolate on our mind — oh, and yes the master works in the National Gallery; oh, and cash.

And so it went. We were most successful in our gastronomic pursuits — breakfast, lunch and dessert. We were, with no small measure of relief, ultimately successful at a Bancomat, and we navigated our way to the central piazza to buy a bus ticket back to the train station. Handing over our 3-euros, we asked which bus to watch for and the attendant pointed across the way and said, “That one.”

Yes, the one getting ready to leave.

We hurried, we boarded, we grabbed the poles in the absence of seats and braced for the ride down the winding streets. And let me here just abbreviate a saga we came to fear would have no end. We missed our stop. In our defense I’ll just insert that wherever that stop might have been it bore no resemblance to where we had boarded the bus several hours earlier. The next thing we know we are passing signs that pointed the opposite way to Perugia. I think we crossed the Alps and were well on our way to Russia, for all we knew, before Lori asked the driver about the fading hopes of ever seeing the train station again. He replied with a time, almost an hour away, when there might possibly be a train sighting. At least there was hope.

Eventually, near the predicted hour, the bus came to a stop, the doors opened, and the driver gave us — who by this time were huddling near the front of the bus readying for any escape — a nod. We spilled through the door, the bus pulled away, we looked around and still saw nothing that looked familiar. We started hurrying, urgent to catch the next train, but in the wrong direction. We studied our environs, found a suggestive sign and started hurtling in that direction.

And that’s when it happened. Lori’s foot caught an uneven brick, and in our weary, frazzled and disoriented state, she clattered to the ground scattering jacket, guide book, papers and miscellany. I reached for her and the scattered debris simultaneously, but faster than me — and virtually out of nowhere — two Italian women appeared in voluble sympathy. One on either side helped Lori to her feet and helped reconnoiter any possible damages. We were all relieved that nothing was broken, never mind a few bruises, scratches and strains. But a wail went up from our Good Samaritans when they saw the tear in the knee of Lori’s pants. They were almost inconsolable.

But we had a train to catch. We thanked them profusely, confirmed with them our course, and hurried away. And made our train. And safely and without further incident reached our apartment and called it a day — one of lostness, and ultimately one of foundness thanks to the kind ministrations of strangers.

As good as the food was, it will get digested. But I suspect we will never quite finish chewing on the grace of those two strangers, their spontaneous willingness to respond, and their sincere concern.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they are still there on that sidewalk, lamenting the tear in those pants. They simply cared that much.

That, when all the dust is settled, will be our memory of Perugia.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Rediscovering Prayer as a First Act

Day 8

It was Worldwide Communion Sunday, so it’s only right that we attended worship this morning in another part of the world — except for the fact that we weren’t included in communion. We took our places in one of the pews of the Church of St. Laurence — San Lorenzo — here in Spello. I found myself having the same experience that members of my congregations have had throughout my ministry: I didn’t have a clue what the priest was saying. Never mind; the visceral participation made up for our lack of a cognizant one. We “felt” what was transpiring even if we couldn’t translate it. The choir sang, the organ played, the congregation rose and sat, recited and responded. And we passed the peace. We understood enough just by the conduct of it all and the augmenting beauty of the church and the warmth of the liturgy that we truly felt like we had worshipped.

Plus, we had help. Our friends whispered condensed translations along the way.

Later this week, unbeknownst to us until this morning, is the Feast of St. Francis. Here, just a few miles from Francis’ home in Assisi, there is a Franciscan monastery at the top of the hill. The Priest from that community was the guest Celebrant, leading the service with fervor, warmth, and grace; presiding over the Eucharist, and preaching. It was truly and movingly beautiful. He spoke engagingly about the twin priorities of prayerful action — a faithful movement in precisely that order. Not, he clarified, our usual knee-jerking propensity for reacting, but rather praying, first, and then acting. Prayer first, followed by purposeful movement.

It took me back to our wedding 20 years ago last week which we are here, in part, celebrating. Convened in the beautiful garden of friends, accompanied by flute and harp, my father called us to worship, led us in a reflection on the character of love, and walked us responsively through our vows and exchange of rings. We reached a point, however, when Lori worried we had gotten off-track. “Isn’t this the time for the kiss?” she whisperingly inquired of my Dad.

“Not yet,” he gently responded. “First we are going to pray.”

The Franciscan this morning would, I believe, concur. Regardless of the question, the answer is, “First we are going to pray.”

There is a patience in that wisdom; a willingness — or at least a determination — to wait for clarity and discernment and divine wisdom. Action is less important than wisdom which rarely if ever comes instantaneously. There is, as was manifest in the Priest’s own bearing, a humility that does not presume.

Unfortunately we were, before the benediction, presented with its antithesis. As the beautiful service drew to a graceful conclusion, the host Priest, who had spent the better part of the service walking obtrusively from one side of the sanctuary to the other — this, after arriving conspicuously late — interrupted the flow and inserted himself into the moment. He made what appeared to be a series of announcements and then continued on — quite pompously we thought — with his own impromptu homily seemingly intended to eliminate any doubt as to who was really in charge. The liturgical strong-arming completely sucked the air and any vitality out of the room; garishly hijacking the spotlight and derailing the spirit of the message and the moment. It was an appalling abrogation.  I'm sure he is a nice guy and a faithful pastor to his people, but this was not his finest hour.  He should have listened more attentively to the Franciscan.

Later, back on the street outside the church, we opted to purge the interruptive stain, cleanse the polluting power play, and hold to ourselves the guest’s more generous message and example: patiently, humbly pray, and by the prayer’s clarifying nudge — and only then — act.

On this Worldwide Communion Sunday we may have been denied the literal loaf and cup, but in every other way we communed.

We pray that we take that wise direction to heart.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A Day of Extravagant Morsels

Day 7

I suppose it would be accurate to say that each of the days we have been in Italy has been about food — the flaky pastries we have found for breakfast at one of the cafes along the street (occasionally with marmalade), the sidewalk lunches and dinners. But today, this one week anniversary of our arrival in Spello, has truly been about eating. Yesterday we stopped at the market and purchased eggs (organic ones of course, unwashed and stacked on the shelf). This morning, after setting out the trash, we strolled to the tiny neighborhood bakery we have come to love and bought some bread — half a baguette we asked the proprietress to slice, along with a muffin that looked intriguing — and returned to our kitchen to whip up a breakfast.

As has become our fond practice since the experience of our last trip to Italy in 2008, we surveyed our options: onions, garlic and various dried pastas on the table; the eggs; and in the refrigerator the remnants of a yellow pepper and some spinach from a previous day’s pass through the vegetable market down the street below us. The solution was, of course, obvious: a frittata! We boiled the pasta, we chopped the vegetables and fork-beat the eggs and combined the happy assortment in a skillet. It wasn’t long before we were sitting at the table, smiling over the eggy morsels dancing on our taste buds, spreading chestnut marmalade over the morning’s fresh baguette. Bravissimo!

One meal, however, only anticipates and clears the way for the next. Since the vegetable market will be closed on Sunday, after the breakfast dishes were washed and put away we strolled down the street and browsed the options for our upcoming days, filling our hand basket as we went — potatoes, onions, another yellow pepper, tomatoes, a cucumber, a beautiful romanesco, and cannellini beans — for which we carefully counted out the change into the hands of the jovial shopkeeper, Patricia. Emptying the sack back at the apartment we discovered parsley and celery she had surreptitiously slipped in as an “extra.” Grazie mille!

After a quick walking circuit up the street and back, we freshened up and waited. Lunch was supposed to be a gift — a tangible gratitude for our host whose apartment we have rented, but whose graciousness has extended infinitely beyond the provision of four walls and a bed — but as with so many aspects of our time here the outing felt less like a gift given and moreso a gift received. Simona drove us — along with her dog, Gilda, who was joining us for lunch — to another mountain town perhaps 20 minutes away, Trevi. Outdoors, along the banks of a mountain stream, we ate freshly caught trout — 3 ways: cooked with pasta, marinated in a salad, and roasted whole with a sprig of rosemary surprisingly found in its belly. Three courses and four hours after departing, we returned to our apartment over-sated, with dear memories and a few dog hairs as souvenirs…
…only to anticipate dinner with two other couples at an iconic restaurant in Spello. Breads, pasta two ways, four grilled meats (sausage, pork, beef and lamb) mixed vegetables and a taste of dessert, but the best part was what tables do best: facilitate amiable and animated conversation, never mind that more than half of it was in a tongue that we do not speak.

It’s night now — past our bedtime — but we are full in ways too numerous to count.

And though it seems a shame to turn off the light, the smiles will keep on glowing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Art and Glow of Shared Limelight


There were a few runners out on the street as we made our way toward the train station at the necessary pre-dawn hour. The lights of a lone cafe invited early risers in for a pastry and cappuccino, but we couldn’t stop. We aren’t that secure yet navigating train schedules and departure platforms, and resolved to be at the station early. One week in, this would be our first day excursion beyond the environs of Spello. We were Orvieto bound.

Of course the trains were on time. That’s simply the way they function here. We successfully navigated our transfer at Orte and arrived in Orvieto a little before 9 am.

We weren’t alone. The funiculare at the bottom of the hill was already full when we wedged our way onboard for the short ascent up the hill to the city center. Spilling out with the crowd in the Piazza del Duomo we joined an even bigger crowd of tourists, each managing to stop multiple times in front of us to extend her or his selfie stick to take another gratuitous shot. We joined the sweeping throng, paused to avail ourselves of that earlier sacrificed cappuccino and pastry, and made a preliminary circuit around town until the churches and museums opened mid-morning.

The day progressed as the guide book recommended, with historic sights, international sounds, artistic expression, and local flavors. And it was delightful for all that.

But two faces stay with me. In a side chapel of the Duomo, called The Chapel of San Brizio, the ceiling and walls are covered with frescoes by Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli whom Michelangelo would later claim as an inspiration and example. The art depicts, among other things, the influence of the Antichrist, the condemnation of the lost, the resurrection of the dead, the torment of the damned and the entrance of the saved into heaven. Cumulatively engaged, it is a near-overwhelming masterpiece. Though Fra Angelico began the work, he was only able to complete the celestial scene immediately behind and above the altar. Decades later, employing a manifestly more evolved style, Signorelli resumed and ultimately completed the project.

In the bottom corner of one of the panels, two figures are painted, standing unobtrusively together, seemingly observing the depicted events. One is a self-portrait of Signorelli; the other is Fra Angelico. Though inserted self-portraits are common enough, I’m taken by this particular fraternal inclusion. Signorelli didn’t have to include his predecessor. He, after all, had completed the vast majority of the work. In fact, a smaller man might have painted over the small inheritance and started over to claim the entirety for himself. That he didn’t is a magnanimity of spirit. That he included Fra Angelico in the embodied signature is true generosity of heart. There they are, the two of them: side by side, partners, co-workers in a project larger than either one.

I’m moved by that — even more than the grandeur of the art and the theological substance of the depiction.

Indeed, that very magnanimity and generosity might very well be what that theology depicted is ultimately about.


There is, indeed, an art to that.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Dipping a Toe into Roman Waters

Day 5

We hiked along the Roman aqueduct.  

That, alone, requires some contemplative/comprehending pause.  We are talking about the Romans — single digits of the Common Era.  4th century, perhaps.  And it is an engineering marvel, this enclosed trench that brought fresh water from the head waters of the mountain stream down to the village below.  It is a transport that involves multiple miles, maintaining a constant velocity across varying elevations, requiring arches in places, bridges in others, and general attention to mountain gradients.  

All at a time long before John Deere, Caterpillar, and modern surveying instruments.  And it functioned up until a hundred years ago.   I think, by comparison, how many times in the past six years I’ve replaced the gasket in the end of my hose.  And the hose itself, for that matter.

And so we walked this way, up and around the mountain, tracking the aqueduct which was sometimes the wall beside us and sometimes the path beneath us; through the olive groves, higher and higher, pausing to absorb the panoramas and views and, I’ll admit it, to sip from our water bottles and to catch our breath.  Along the path, stone plaques had been affixed to the aqueduct wall engraved with quotes in Italian by various thinkers.  “Live as if you were to die tomorrow.  Learn as if you were to live forever,” encouraged one from Gandhi.  We smiled in agreement and assent.

The trail leveled and then climbed, around the hillside and over a gorge and ultimately rose on the rocky equivalent of ball-bearings over which we picked our way until we reached the end of the trail and the village beyond — Collepino, “little pine.”  We explored the immaculate town, then settled around the outdoor table of the bar that provided our lunch:  cheese, cured meats, bruschetta of 3 varieties, chased by an apricot pastry made that morning by the wife of the bar keeper.  

Sighing with one more glorious look around, we started our descent.  And all the way back to Spello — easier, at times, downhill; at other times harder — we picked wild asparagus, fennel and arugula for dinner, and marveled at the wild mountain fragrance perfumed by wild rosemary, oregano, onion, and mint.    

Here, amidst the joyful abundance, we walked and talked and paused to absorb the view; 

...believing it almost sacrilegious to allow ourselves to be short of breath.