Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Past as Prologue

I'm too sentimental for this. And it's only getting worse with age. Annually this is one of my recurring dreaded moments: the inevitable lists of famous people who have died through the course of the year. Pop culture icons. Musicians. Actors. Luminaries. Statesmen. This year the list includes Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Jim Nabors, Joseph Wapner, and Don Rickles; there was Roger Moore who was perhaps my favorite James Bond, and Adam West, the quintessential Batman. There were showmen Jerry Lewis and Monty Hall. Passing musicians in my personal Hall of Fame this year include Al Jarreau, Greg Allman, Chuck Berry, Glen Campbell, Walter Becker, Tom Petty, Fats Domino, and David Cassidy, although plenty will take issue with that last one.

And these are just to name a few. There are certainly others on the list, like Chuck Barris of "Gong Show" fame, and Hugh Hefner of Playboy. Age was the determining factor for many, along with other natural causes. Suicide took more than its share (although I'm not sure what the share of suicide might be). Often The Grim Reaper wielded a sickle in the shape of the Big "C". As it always is, it's a long and diverse list. Some on the list changed history; some changed their particular craft; some didn't change a thing but helpfully entertained. Some simply changed me — or at least provided the soundtrack to the various changes I was undergoing.

And I will admit to the melancholia I feel at the loss of these 2x4's that have formed some part of the background and underlying structure of my years. Their passing confirms the inexorable movement of time — underscoring that the "way things are" is merely a transient movement along the way to whatever next will be. And every other day of the year I celebrate this movement that I pray will eventually be judged "progress." God knows I'm not the least bit interested in this present state of affairs being the culmination of anything to which we collectively aspire.

And yet seeing this long list every year reminds me that there are all kinds of joys along the way — secular "Ebenezers" to borrow a word from scripture and the old hymn; marker stones along the way of something memorable and good (the "Gong Show" notwithstanding).

Most of us will never show up on year-end lists of this sort. The ponds into which we throw our pebbles are much too small and remote. But they are our ponds, nonetheless, and we care about them and the ripples we set in motion. Institutionally we often ask, "if this organization ceased to exist would anyone notice or miss it?" Perhaps the better use of these year-end lists, then, is less to simply lament the passing of memorable personalities and the times in which they flourished, and more to prompt us to toss a few more pebbles with whatever time we have left.

I will miss these departed souls — their shows, their songs, the jokes and the laughs, and the associations I connect with them all. But only for a moment. There are, after all, new songs being written.

Ironic and appropriate, then, that at the very time I've been reading these lists of passing we have been playing with our 1-year-old grandson, celebrating not the past but all that lies ahead…

…in his hands…

…and, even yet, in ours.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Village’s Friendly Reminder


We have been eating into the spirit of the season — or eating ON the spirit of the season, to put a finer point on the matter.  A few weeks ago Lori retrieved from the cabinet downstairs our set of “Thanksgiving dishes” to enjoy in these waning days of autumn.

Called “The Friendly Village”, our little set consists of four place settings of this English China made by Johnson Brothers.  I don’t really know why we think of them as particular to Thanksgiving, lacking as they do the usual cornucopia and turkey iconography.  Perhaps it is the way their quaint brown images artfully and unobtrusively blur the transition between autumn and winter — precisely as late November is prone to do — with their snowy rural scenes encircled by fallen leaves and berries.  They are somehow warming, despite their chilly depictions; sweet and nostalgically bucolic.  They rather "feel like" the season, even if no pilgrims are pictured.

Warming, then, but also bittersweet, which perhaps accounts for their several years of neglect. The set was a gift received early in my ministry in Des Moines.  I don’t recall it to have been a special occasion — a birthday or Christmas or the like; we weren’t, in that way, in the habit of exchanging such gifts between pastor and people.  I rather recall it to have been something of a sunlit intervention in a particularly dark season of my life — a gesture of grace meant to convey sympathetic support.   A kindness more than anything.  But whatever the impetus, into my office one day breezed Evelyn carrying a wrapped box from which I later excavated the dishes.  A gift, as it were, from Harry and Evelyn, although it likely would have been news to Harry.

I had primarily known Harry and Evelyn as pleasant-faced members of the church’s older generation — reliably present among the pews on Sunday but otherwise peripheral to the busyness of congregational life.  They were kindly and implicitly supportive, but hardly the chatty type.  Other than the perfunctory exchanges of social obligation, I doubt we had ever enjoyed a true conversation.  I did not know them well, and yet here she was bearing gifts.

I’ll admit that while I was touched by the thoughtfulness, the dishes themselves left me...well, let’s say “neutral.”  Chalk it up to the superficial snobbery of youth, they didn’t really fit into my “aesthetic”.  Striking me as something more befitting my grandparents’ table than mine, I dutifully used them on seasonal occasions,  but they more generally lived toward the rear of the cabinet.

And then they began to haunt me.  In the years following the gift given and received, I rocked along through my tenure, busy with many things in my personal and professional life.  The church bustled programmatically along, the kids grew up; I got married, and Harry and Evelyn aged.  Eventually Evelyn went into a special care center on the far side of town and, left to his own religious devices, Harry sort of drifted away.  I visited Evelyn a time or two, but her memory issues made for challenging conversations, and I conveniently got lost in the proliferation of many and simpler things.  Or perhaps more truthfully put, Evelyn got lost in my proliferation of those many and simpler things.  The sum of it is that I neglected her —pastorally abandoned her and, by extension, Harry.  They eventually died largely forgotten by the church they had loved, save but one or two attentive friends.  And I grieve that negligence to this day.  

Which explains the bitter-sweetness of pulling out those dishes each year and setting the November table.  Their “aesthetic”, for one thing, is more compatible now — we have become, after all, the grandparents to whom I once consigned them; and God knows a “Friendly Village” is something toward which we can use every encouragement.  But mostly we use them to remember — Harry and Evelyn, to be sure — but more broadly the painful regret of negligent forgetting.  We eat off of these dishes to remind us to notice, to reach out, to be instigators in ways that we are able of precisely that “Friendly Village” in which we long to live; one encircling especially those more present to us who we easily forget or neglect.    

It’s just a small set of four, and we are only two, but whatever their other virtues and value, the dishes remind us that every village starts somewhere, and this one might as well start at our table...

...or yours, for that matter...

...Remembering, and giving thanks.

And reaching out.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Maybe You Cry Too

“I wonder if maybe I had a heart attack sometime without knowing it,” I mused aloud.  “I’ve heard that people get more emotional after heart attacks.”  

Because it seems like I’m awfully emotional these days.  

Now, people who have orbited in my universe for any time at all will no doubt smile at such a speculation.  They would tell you that I’ve never had too much trouble getting emotional.  Despite my most willful intentions tears have leaked through the years into sermons, splashed  onto poignant passages of books and drowned out musical lyrics, while throat lumps interrupted conversation.  It doesn’t take a very deep well to drill into my personal water table.  

That noted, however, my tears these days seem to be ever more readily available.  

It could be, I suppose, that I’m simply and increasingly “losing it” — becoming more and more fragile, unstable and vulnerable to the shifting breezes regardless if they are favorable or deleterious.   I doubt it, but check with my wife who likely has better perspective on this question.

It could also be that there are simply more reasons to cry — a fact virtually indisputable.  
Think Puerto Rico and Houston and Miami and their hurricane-devastated lives.  
Think Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, TX and their bullet-riddled bodies.
Think the record-breaking 24 homicides so far in low-key, middle-of-the-road, heart-beat of the flyover zone Des Moines this year — or is it already 25?
Think Bill Clinton and Donald Trump and Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes and Bill O’Riley and Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Louis CK and God knows how many others with their trailing wastelands of despicable behaviors that they somehow viewed, in their oddly dystopian parallel universes, to be normal and acceptable.
And think of the way the rest of us find ourselves interacting with one another, what with our incendiary social media posts and put downs.  

Who is there to listen?  We suddenly find ourselves surrounded by “voices” — “conservative” voices, “progressive” voices, voices “of the people”, and more.  And don’t misunderstand me, I’m not interested in silencing anyone.  Indeed, too many have been silenced for too long and who need, at long last, to be heard.  But therein lies my anguish.  No one is actually hearing them — listening, seeking to understand.  Once upon a time that was the purview of town halls and civic organizations and churches.  But town halls have been politicized, civic organizations, such as still exist, slide into the lowest common programmatic denominators, and churches have become simply one more “voice”, intoned with righteous — or is it sanctimonious? — edge.  

I rather think, moreso than “voices”, we could benefit these days from a few more true, unpretentious and resilient communities in which people take the time to actually listen to voices other than their own; in which “respect” is as much practiced as demanded; in which “wonder” and “curiosity” and “concern” are encouraged and nourished even when they drift into possibilities contrary to my entrenched dogmas; and in which we, who don’t always or ever agree, actually celebrate the sacredness of sharing that relational space — suspecting that the vigilant maintenance of that communal commonwealth may well be more important than whatever it is that we say and hear there.

But we don’t seem to have the time or interest in that, determined instead to over-shout each other, exploit, ignore, use, abuse, disdain or simply shoot each other.

And it makes me want to cry.

But even that, I suppose, is ultimately hopeful.  As Leonard Cohen famously said, "There's a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets in."

Which means that whatever else we are doing with all our fracturing, we are making room for all kinds of light.  

Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Long-running Past Into the Future

It was a brief gathering — a few hours that whirred by in a rattle of baby clangs and the chatter of adults. But it happened. We weren't all there — we lamented the relational gaps — but enough of us were present to call it good: four generations, convened in one place for food and visiting and the blessed grace of looking into each other's eyes while convened in the same room, around the same table. For once it wasn't an occasion. No one had died, there were no candles to blow out or graduations to proclaim; there was no holiday to celebrate. We all simply found ourselves proximate and seized the opportunity. 

We don't take such moments for granted; they happen seldom enough given our disparate zip codes — that, and no one can guess how many more chances we will get. Life is unpredictable that way — ultimately ephemeral, and no matter what our ultimate ages inevitably shorter than we'd wish. We see what we get to see, do what we get to do in the days of our pulsing, according to our choosing. And the choosing is key, I reflect to myself, given that we can neither see nor do it all. 

Whatever lies ahead, today we chose to be together, if only for that handful of hours — parents, child, grandchildren, partner and Great-grandchild. We remembered, we caught up, we laughed, we shared a meal, we inhabited the moment — physically this time, rather than telephonically — with our lives and ourselves. And while I'm grateful for the technology that blurs and bends the miles on a more frequent basis, there is something holy and blessed about bodies in one place, sitting close enough enough to feel the warmth of each other's skin and smell the varied colognes. 

The baby helps. Without voicing the reality of it, his crawling and reaching, fascinating and cooing reminds us of the birthings that prefigured this very gathering — of a husband and wife who became parents of babies who grew to become parents whose babies now give birth. Families as gestation and birth writ large and wide. 

While the rest of us were both buoyed by and freighted with memory, baby Truett has only a future into which he reflexively leans and beckons us. Willingly and sluggishly — nostalgically — we follow along. And somehow both the leaning backward and the leaning forward are satisfying; centering even. 

And so it was that we eventually went our separate ways — changed a bit despite the brevity of the moment. Swelled, perhaps, by the largeness — and the largess — of these precious days. 

However many of them we get.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Olive Branches of Multiple Varieties

 Day 14

We walked among the groves on this, our last full day in Spello — morning, and then again afternoon.  We had destinations in mind — a cemetery here, a shrine there — but mostly we felt this need to be out along the paths beyond the village, among the trees.

For centuries olive oil has been, beyond kitchen and the table, the enacted, anointing vocabulary of blessing — the liturgical lubricant of forgiveness, peace and hope.  I haven’t a credible explanation why.  Perhaps in the cultures that gave rise to the scriptures of Jews, Muslims and Christians, olives and their oil represent, by their ubiquity, all that which is foundational, basic and essential — the primal gift and ground of the Holy.  Perhaps it was used ceremonially just to remember our foundations and what is finally important.

Before, then, resuming our place in the routines of our lives; before returning to the hourly news reports of conflicts and threats, storms and terrorist assaults, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the surrounding olive branches, willing, by visceral experience, to take something of their blessing back home to our world in such desperate need of it.

It’s not that Spello is inured to such challenges. As a walled city, danger and threat and tumult are part of its DNA. As victim of two major earthquakes in the past 20 years, the very walls bear scars.  It’s shopkeepers carry the weight of economic downturns.  And it’s people — it’s families and neighbors — are not strangers to the usual abrasions of close social interaction.

But such challenges are muted, more peripheral threads in the overall tapestry of life.  They aren’t ignorant of world affairs, but neither are they glued to television channels continually drenched in their toxicity.  They interact with each other.  The animated and enlivening conversations with the personalities in front of
them are more precious than the swirling political vicissitudes around them.  They are largely pedestrian.  They walk home from work — journeys of a few blocks that may take an hour because they are filled with hellos and pauses for stories exchanged among friends. They are no stranger to the countryside or fresh air.  Connection with each other and their surroundings is daily routine, not special event.

Which is not to say there are not special events.

Which is how it turned out that the olive branches this day would come in more forms than wood.

We were invited to a party.  If there was an occasion, we weren’t aware of it.  It was, as far as we knew, simply a time for friends to be together.  There were the hosts — an Italian professor of the classics and his American artist/professor wife — along with various expats from around the US.  There were Spellani, like the community cultural director and his wife, two restauranteurs, a neighbor or two and also a poet who shared, as a spontaneous climax to the evening, her new publications.  And in the midst of it all there was made a place for us. Over the course of the evening there was discussion of books, of ideas and words and personal stories and creativity and imaginative stimulation.  There was encouragement and curiosity and affirmation.  There was food and thanksgiving and hellos and goodbyes.  In its own way— in lives shared, in Italian, broken but earnest English, and our own welcomed monolinguism — the entire room became an olive branch, heavy with anointing fruit.
“How good and pleasant it is when kindred live in unity!  It is like precious oil on the head...” (Psalm 133:1-2)
How good and pleasant — and hopeful, and enlivening — indeed.

We are mostly packed, and prepared for the journey home — functionally at least.  In truth, there will be parts of us that won’t fit in our bags that will necessarily remain behind in these homes, along these streets, and scattered among these olive groves; partly because there is so much of this place that will accompany us, profoundly enlarged and changed, home.

Perhaps we will find our way here again.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Grace of a Name and a Gentle Touch

Day 13

Claudio has a tender touch.

On each of the days we have stopped into Patricia's vegetable shop at the lower end of town, her husband Claudio — the silent, tall and lanky counterpart to her boisterous, short and stocky persona and frame — is puttering quietly around on the front porch, stacking crates, rearranging boxes; occasionally restocking a bin inside the store. Patricia holds forth from behind the counter, bantering, weighing, calculating and making change.

For the longest time we didn't even know his name. When we asked around town, people responded with a blank look, realizing that they didn't know his name either. Everybody knows Patricia. He, on the other hand, is something of a shadow around the edges only discernible with peripheral vision.

But the village grapevine finally bore fruit, and from friend to friend to friend to friend, the answer eventually made its way back to our query. "Claudio. His name is Claudio."

And so I have been calling him by name whenever we stop by the shop. "Buon giorno Claudio," I'd call out as we passed by on our way through the door. And he has smiled.

While in Assisi yesterday we stopped by a cheese shop and purchased an ovaline of fresh mozzarella with the thought of making a caprese salad today for lunch. Of course we needed a tomato, and knew that Patricia, who has very precise ideas about such things, would steer us wisely through the vast array of varietals to the best one for our needs.

All was as usual as we approached the store, except, for a change, we were the moment's only customer. Stepping up to the porch and making our way toward the door, I hesitated a moment for the obligatory greeting.

"Buon giorno, Claudio," I said before continuing on my way. And that's when I felt his hand. As gentle as my father's touch, Claudio patted my shoulder as I passed, and quietly but earnestly responded in kind. "Buon giorno."

That was all. It's not like the clouds parted or the birds began to sing. It's not like we exchanged addresses to be added to each other's Christmas card list. And it's entirely possible that I read more into that simple gesture than he intended. But I believe there was something special about that tender touch and those quiet words spoken. It was an acknowledgment of being noticed — a recognition of being recognized. By name.

Once inside and true to form, Patricia volubly took charge, steering us to the correct tomato. We counted out our change and headed back outside where Claudio was puttering with his crates.

We smiled as we waved for what was likely the last time. And my smile lingered; perhaps his, too — mine at the joy of fitting in; his at the knowledge of being known.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Pulled Between Mixed Messages

Day 12

Assisi. I'll just confess to some dissonance here. We visited there today — an ancient walled, mountain city a short taxi ride from Spello. It is a beautiful town — fingering its way up and around the hillside; majestically overlooking the valley below and the panoramic view all around. It is a place of heft and depth — an ancient city that wears its heritage like the precious garment that it is. It is a place of magnificent remembrance — the breathtakingly simple surrounded by the breathtakingly opulent and grand. It is the home of Francis, poster child of concern for the earth and all that dwells therein — the sun, the moon, the smallest animal to the fiercest predator, lovingly embraced and affirmed as an integral part of God's grand design; Francis, the devotè of the poor and the weak and the small — venerated here by the grand, the gold, the immense, and the ostentatious.

Therein lies the rub. The city and its edifices are beautiful. The arches, the frescoes, the gold leaf and the ornamentation. Artistically, they are inspiring, monumental, awe-filling and staggering. It is all, in a word, moving. And I believe that Francis — the focus of it all; Francis, the advocate for the small, the poor, the "least of these" that God views as precious — must be rolling over in his venerated grave.

In short, I think he would be appalled at what's been made of and spent on his legacy.

He who stripped naked in the public square in solidarity with the poor.

He who threw money — and his clothes — at his parents in repudiation of their capitalist values.

He who gave away all he had and lived in poverty, berating the rich and challenging his Pope on behalf of those with nothing.

One of our guide books called attention to a particular fresco high on the ceiling above the altar in the Basilica's lower nave. It depicts a risen Francis, ensconced in heaven, seated on a throne and clothed in a rich, golden robe — the celestial reward for an earthly life of obedience, chastity, and poverty. The suggestion seems to be that in heaven he received all the luxuries he had forsaken on earth — the ultimate delay of gratification; heaven as the religious version of the appliance salesman's fantasy about being a rock star in that old Dire Straits song, where you get "your money for nothing and your chicks for free."

But I rather suspect that Francis would be puzzled by the notion that he had sacrificed anything in his embrace of simplicity; rather, that he had simply chosen the life that God desires.

All of which is to say that I'm conflicted. I loved it. It is beautiful. I was moved by it — indeed I was inspired by it. And I was appalled by it, all at the same time.

And I am relatively certain that as long as there is a hungry person begging on the street (as we encountered from time to time); as long as there is a homeless person sleeping in the shadows; as long as there is a disenfranchised person begging to be heard; as long as there is an animal endangered or a landscape brutalized or clearcut...

...Francis wouldn't darken the door of any of these shrines erected in his honor. He would have more important work to do. At least admission is free, even if it does cost .50-euros to use the bathroom.

It was, then, an awfully wonderful day, and one that will helpfully trouble me for some time to come.

In the meantime, I'll pray with him:

O most high and glorious God,
Enlighten the darkness of my heart.
Give me right faith,
Certain hope,
Perfect love
And deep humility.
O Lord, give me sense and discernment
In order to carry out your true and holy will. Amen.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Toward A Lighter, More Encouraging Touch

Day 11, part B

The DiFilippo Winery, a half-hour drive from Spello, is a long way from the high-gloss, high-tech wineries of Napa…or elsewhere in Umbria for that matter. In fact, the driver who delivered us there never stopped shaking his head at our preference for visiting there, muttering repeatedly that there are better winery destinations. DiFilippo is, indeed, a little off the beaten path, and there are certainly more polished, customer-friendly operations. But there are relational ties to friends in Spello, and such connections carry weight. Additionally, their 35 hectares of calcareous clay soil and the vines they support are certified organic; plus, they employ the bio-dynamic practices advocated by Rudolph Steiner almost a hundred years ago that align human behaviors and interventions in the vineyards with the systems and principles of nature.

That explains the horses, and the geese.

All of the cultivation is accomplished with draught horses — towering animals, exactingly trained — to avoid the soil compaction that tractors would leave behind, strangling the roots and starving the vines. And let’s face it, while the grapes get all the press, it’s ultimately all about the roots. Beyond their lighter touch, the horse hooves massage the soil, according to our host, stirring and stimulating the ground while leaving the roots ample freedom and encouragement to grow and deepen and nourish.

As for that nourishment, the vineyard workers spread compost, but they also receive additional support.

That explains the geese.

Three-hundred geese call the vineyard home. They patrol the paths between the rows, eating bugs and weeds while depositing nutrient-rich manure. The geese only become detrimental to the grapes once the fruit begins to ripen, at which time they are herded into paddocks beyond the vines, and ultimately butchered for cured meat.

I was struck by the paradoxical contrasts between the olive oil processing plant we visited in the morning and the winery we visited in the afternoon. The former is entirely modern, while the latter might even be deemed primitive. In both cases, however, their methods are in service to a lighter, more encouraging touch. Both — one with sophisticated technology and the other with horses and geese — eschew the heavy-handed methods of coercion and compaction in favor of evocation; they simply arrive at that shared priority from opposite directions.

Which is interesting, and instructive. And, for people like me with a penchant for believing there to be a single “right path” for reaching a single “desired end”, humbling…

…and cautionary.

Cheers, then, to the horse, the goose, the centrifuge and the artisans of oil and wine and civil life discerning enough to partner with them.

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.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Finding Spaces Through the Walls

The neighbor in Robert Frost’s poem proverbially remarked that “good walls make good neighbors.”  But Frost never quite seems to buy it, musing that nature seems to have a contrary opinion.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,And spills the upper boulders in the sun;And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”
Walls, in other words, have a way of coming down.  And though the neighbor in the poem resists it and religiously repairs the breeches, I am grateful for the gaps — especially those that are filled with doors that are hospitably opened.

Spello is a walled mountain village. Looked at — strolled through — from a certain perspective it has the feel of a fortress, which in a sense it was in the days when the Romans built the aqueduct to supply it with water, in the days when rivalries and conflicts were more fisted.  Spello was built for precaution.  The walls could be retreated behind.  The gates could be closed and locked.  

The threats have changed over the centuries, but Spello’s walls remain — its citizens adopting, perhaps, Frost’s neighbor’s side of the argument that good walls make good neighbors.

But if those gates and doors can close they can just as easily open, as happened yesterday — not by earthquake but through the agency of generosity.  

We had been to the market in the lower piazza — that weekly congregation of tents, trucks and townsfolk displaying pots and plants and underwear, dresses and shoes —  and were strolling back up the main road, passing one of the shopkeepers standing in her doorway.  Our friends introduced us — the wondrous alchemy of friends introduced to friends by friends — and we spoke of gardens; ours back home, the ones we were planning to see around the village.  And she insisted that we stop by and see her own.  “Ciao” we all exclaimed and we continued on our way, depositing our bags in our respective residences before continuing our exploration.  

Picking up our walk, we meandered along one sideway then another, before turning into still another until stopping near an iron gate in the stone wall that opened into a spacious but largely hidden garden.  We turned toward a woman’s cheerful greeting — our shopkeeper friend — who led us through the gate and in among the flowers, the vegetables and the chickens.  It was beautiful, and largely invisible to a passerby.  

Completing the tour, our host invited us inside her home to see her husband’s work.  Crossing in through a doorway cut into the opposite wall, we entered a room completely filled with a miniature village — handmade houses with tiny furniture and Lilliputian  dishes and inhabitants, fields with vegetables and animals; a complete and expansive Italian village and countryside culminating in a nativity scene all intricately carved from stone and fashioned from plaster.  

It was stunning — a masterpiece of minute detail and whimsically exacting imagination.  And then we were invited into their living space above — ostensibly to see more of his artistic creations, but almost certainly to feel welcomed into the intimacy of their space.  The art was masterful, but the hospitality within these stone walls was overwhelming.  
We descended the steps to the sunlit via outside, voicing our “mille grazies” and “buona sera’s”, and continued on our way; mostly silent for awhile, each of us reflecting on what we had seen and the privilege we felt at being invited behind the walls to see it.  

“Imagine what other wonders are kept silently behind these walls,” we pondered with a mix of awe and reverence, humility and gratitude.  

“Good walls make good neighbors,” insisted Frost’s own neighbor; and while I suppose there could be some truth to that I don’t subscribe to the belief.  What I can say with conviction, however, is that whatever the value of the walls, real friends know the passages through them...

...and use them.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Lunch, Olives, and Peace on Earth

Day 3

We gathered with ex-pats of one degree or another — a dozen or so adventurous souls from the U.S. and Australia who have transplanted their endemic roots to this ancient village. This is a swing time for the English speaking fellowship within this Italian village.  Some have just returned to Spello after a season away; others are preparing to leave for a time.  The luncheon was a chance to convene in the brief overlap.  Few of the group had visited this new oileria which had opened during the summer, and so was met this happy constellation of benefits — fellowship, culinaria, and support of a new local business.  

A single long, wood-plank table dominated the space.  After greetings and introductions we took our seats and the festivities began.  The proprietor introduced us to different varieties of olives from different regions, in different degrees of ripeness, moving on to the oils derived from them.  We sampled them on breads, moved on to vegetables — potatoes, cabbage, shaved fennel, zucchini— and ultimately hand-crafted pasta, with a post-scripting dessert conspicuously devoid of olive.  

In the course of our experience, a couple on the sidewalk outside paused at the door to inquire about lunch.  Virginians themselves, the two were visiting Spello for the day and, as it turned out, there were two empty places at the table.  They gratefully but hesitantly took their seats, and before long their English happily merged with our own.  They were a few courses behind the rest of us, but never mind; we weren’t in a hurry and our host could juggle the sequencing.  The food and the mountain, the commonalities and conviviality quickly enfolded us.  Strangers dissolved into friends.

What is the enzyme that enables such bonding to occur?  Is it the rarified air of mountainous antiquity or simply the common cause of meeting on foreign soil?  Is it the truncated nature of our acquaintance — a clean start devoid of the trailing stories, entanglements, misjudgments that often stain our presentiments and hobble our interactions?  Is it the stage of life that delivers us happily beyond our former competitions?  Is it the food or the wine or a shared exploratory curiosity?  Is it the possible but unlikely providence of a congregation of disparate individuals who simply “click”? 

All of these or some combination or some factor altogether different?

I haven’t a clue.  I only know that in the company of occasional neighbors, recent arrivals and total strangers it was present around that table.  Lives effortlessly mingled.  A different kind of oxygen filled the lungs of our soul.  Smiles flickered like holiday lights.  And hours passed.  The church bells above the piazza rang four o’clock as we pushed our chairs away from the table and bid each other farewell until who knows when.  

And I know how much I wish I could distill it, cultivate it and disseminate it freely like open-pollinated seeds.  

Because the world could use more of this kind of fruit...

...and the olive branches from which it grows.