Monday, December 29, 2008

What to say?

Erez Crossing into Gaza

I have been hesitating about writing for this blog over the past 48 hours. I think I might be more inclined to take little interest in Israel's bombing of Gaza if I had not so recently been in Israel and Palestine. If I had not had Israeli guns pointed at me as I crossed the Kalandia checkpoint and experienced the frustration of Palestinian brothers and sisters (many of whom are Christians) as they seek to live with Israeli occupation, I might be less inclined to weep at this new misery. I have been interested in our news reports compared to the news I am receiving from both Israeli and Palestinian organizations who are saddened and angered by this new assault on the people of Gaza. Here are the words of a young woman in Gaza about the attacks.

Dear all. Here's an update on whats happening here from where I am, second night of Israeli air (and sea) raids on Gaza. Israeli warships rocketed the Gazas only port only moments ago, 15 missiles exploded, destroying boats and parts of the ports. These are just initial reports over the radio. We don't know what the extent of the damage is. We do know that the fishing industry that thousands of families depend on either directly or indirectly didn't pose a threat on Israeli security The radio reporter started counting the explosions, I think he lost count after 6. At this moment we heard 3 more blasts. "I'm mostly scared of the whoosh", I told my sister, referring to the sound a missile makes before it hits. Those moments of wondering where its going to fall are agonizing. Once the whooshes and hits were over the radio reporter announced that the fish market (vacant of course) had been bombed. We just heard that 4 sisters from the family of "Ba'lousha" have been killed in an attack that targeted the mosque my their home in the northern Gaza Strip. Peace, Safa

There are more e-mails describing the chaos and misery of those who live in both the West Bank and Gaza right now. There are many issues to consider of course. Hamas' unwillingness to negotiate, the shelling of southern Israel by Hamas rockets, the starvation of the people of Gaza by Israeli blockages of relief shipments, and the ongoing siege of Gaza for months now, and the overall occupation and demands of Israel on the Palestinian people. It is a complicated situation. Perhaps I will be able to write more about my own experience in Israel and Palestine but right now I am aching for the people whose lives continue to be ripped apart - both Palestinians and Israelis. Praying for peace comes quickly now; with each breath, as I see the faces of those I met and spent time with. I encourage this prayer among us all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

All I Want For Christmas

An Abundant Olive Harvest
Reading for pleasure is a great balance to some of the "heavier" books I have been making my way through. One of those pleasure books is The Lady in the Palazzo: An Umbrian Love Story" by Marlena de Blaisi. The story is about a couple who are looking for a home in Umbria - a place to restore and make their own. It's a delightful story about food, and relationships. The author begins the book by describing the festival of St. Anthony in an Umbrian village. It is celebrated in the town plaza with a huge bonfire, enormous quantities of food and an invitation to all of the surrounding villages to come and feast. There is even a raffle and the drawing for the winner of the prize is done with great ceremony.
"The Bishop, divested of his official purple in favor of corduroy pants and down-filled vest, is calling for attention. The drawing of the winning ticket for the evening's prize is near. A wheel-barrow -- a glossy black number, on loan for the evening from the ferramenta, the hardware store -- is lined with a tablecloth, faded yellow and nicely ironed. It is precariously stacked with salame and prosciutto and cheese, necklaces of dried figs and bay leaves threaded on kitchen string, pomegranates, persimmons still on their leafless branches. Nests of homemade pasta wrapped in kitchen towels are leaned up against the dried kind in paper boxes. Breads, cakes, jam tarts, biscotti shed sugar over all of it. And there are jugs and jugs of housemade wine. Each item is a donation from a villager, his "tariff" for the evening. Additionally, the villagers each buy a raffle ticket... I like that nothing in the wheelbarrow is separate from the other things, how the fruit lies on the unwrapped cheese, how the cakes totter as they will, the whole of it an artless study in abundance.

Another study in abundance is the winner. He is a small, round boy with great chestnut eyes and red blooms over his olive cheeks. He seems shy at first, puling at his mother's hand, wanting her company as he goes to claim his prize. Noting his hesitation, the bishop steers the barrow to the boy, and the crowd screams its approval. The boy's brown -mittened hands take over the cart and, after some small consulting with his mother, he pushes it about the piazza. Having decided to distribute his riches to the crowd, he asks people to choose what they'd like. Sometimes, the boy stops to tell someone how to cook a thing, how to slice it, what to serve with it...

Of his preening mother, I ask his age. He will soon be ten. She is flustered and teary, pulling at her sweater, running a hand through the curls of her thick black hair. No one, least of all she, will talk about the circle of grace just closed by her son here in a small town in Umbria by the light of Saint Anthony's fire. (The Lady in the Palazzo: An Umbrian Love Story, Marlena de Blaisi, pages 17 and 18)

The pictures of abundance described by de Blaisi in this section of her book are what I think of at this time of the year. We are the recipients of this "wheelbarrow of abundance." Our task is distribution. I hope this Christmas you will consider ways to share the abundance in your lives with others. Like everyone, I love to receive gifts; but I know that I do not "need" anything. My life is full of treasures beyond measure in my family, and friends. The incredible beauty of creation is like opening a new present each day. So this year what I want for Christmas is to carry my wheelbarrow of abundance around to give to others.

I have some suggestions if you are looking for ways to empty your wheelbarrow. I just received a part of a pig from a friend. It is a gift through Heifer International. The pig will be a "living savings account" for a struggling family somewhere in the world. You can access their gift catalog of animals at or by clicking the link on the right side of this page.

Habitat for Humanity is another way to share the abundance in your wheelbarrow. Donations can be made to their program called "A gift from the heart." These donations will be used to build affordable houses for people all over the world, including the places where you currently live. It is a wonderful organization found at or by clicking on the link on the right side of this page.

Lastly if you are into planting things you might want to plant an olive tree at Daher's vineyard near Bethelem in Israel. These olive trees will greatly increase the value and quality of the Nassar family land and offer a greater means of income for them. You can read about this project at Just click on the Projects: Land and People window to learn about the olive tree project and others. This link is found under Friends of the Tent of Nations at the right side of this page.

Whatever abundance is in your wheelbarrow this Christmas I urge you to share with any of these worthwhile projects or your local church's outreach or local food pantry. In these days of world wide financial crisis most of us in the western world can still consider ourselves blessed with abundant resources. Fill up your wheelbarrow and start sharing.

Meal Shared at a Palestinian Home in Israel

Sunday, December 21, 2008

What Can I Give Him?

Today we went to Christ Episcopal Church in Sparta, NC. There was a little bit of everything in the service - incense, a Nativity pageant, Eucharist and lots of music to go with it all. The children's pageant was tender and at times really funny. It was a combination of joy and drama, exactly as it should be. I just happened to have my camera with me and caught this picture of a very "reflective" little Mary. And this picture of the whole cast:

Christmas Pageant at Christ Episcopal Church
The children sang the last verse of "In the Bleak Mid-winter." The words come from a poem by Christina Rosetti:
What can I give Him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man,
I would do my part;
Yet what I can give Him:
give my heart.
Christmas is (in our culture) all about giving and getting and Rosetti's poem points to the best of this - we receive the priceless gift of God's love, shown to us in his Son Jesus; and in return what can we give but ourselves? These words sung sweetly by children with bright expectant faces filled me with new hope. That is the hope for opening more of my heart to Jesus. I think that there is within each of us a bright expectant child who is willing to offer the the best that we are and the best that we have to God. So many "adult" things often get in the way of the heartfelt gift of myself. So many "taught or caught" prejudices interfere with my more childlike desire to love God in every person. And I have accumulated so much stuff - both materially and emotionally that complicates loving God with all that I have and hold. I love feeling the hope of this day when I desire with all my heart to "do my part."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Gift of Visiting

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, North Carolina
My body is definitely still on Italy time! I keep waking up at 1 am thinking it is time to get up. Little by little the jet lag is beginning to clear. I am now in the Christmas mode and that's good. I will leave this part of North Carolina to go "home" to the mountains for Christmas. I have loved visiting here in Fayetteville and seeing the new sanctuary at Holy Trinity pictured above. The labyrinth in the floor of the church is wonderful and the windows give the feel of being outdoors.

I've spent time just "visiting" with wonderful friends here. Catching up on what is happening in the lives of the people who are part of God's family and mine in this place makes me feel old! But it also makes me extraordinarily grateful for God's grace. I came to Holy Trinity in 1992 with many doubts about myself and ministry. The people of this parish were a healing presence to me and they "loved" me back into ministry.

I've been reading selections from the book, I Have Called You Friends: Reflections on Reconciliation. It was written in honor of Frank Griswold, our previous Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church, and it is a collection of writings by notable people. In her reflection, called "Taste and See," Ellen F. Davis talks about gratitude. This is a portion of what she writes in a meditation about Psalm 34:

"An Arabic proverb sums up all human experience thus:

One day for you, one day against you.

A well-known religious teaching amplifies the proverb:

When time is for you, give thanks to God.
And when it is against you, have patience, endure.

That wisdom comes from seventh - century Arabia, but it might as well have come from ancient Israel, because it exactly captures the thought of our psalm. In the terms of the Arabic proverb, the psalmist is speaking on a good day, when things are for him. So he begins by giving thanks to God :

I will bless YHWH at all times
his praise shall ever be in my mouth. (Psalm 34:2)

I am spending time with these words because it is so easy to make the "days that are against us" all about us...or all about someone else! The truth is that if we live long enough some days will "be against us." Some days will simply not go well. What we choose to do with the days that are against us is important. Praising God may come at the end of a long reflection about life's hard days. One of the other reflections in this book is written by Desmond Tutu. He writes about Nelson Mandela. Mandela's 27 years in prison on Robben Island could have strangled him with bitterness. Instead he chose to fill his life with forgiveness. He invited his white South African jailer to be a VIP guest at his Presidential inauguration. His witness of forgiveness advanced the cause of reconciliation. Like St. Francis of Assisi he let his actions speak louder than any sermon or speech could ever speak. And so perhaps the essence of reconciliation is found in what we fill our lives with on even the days that are against us.

Trinity symbol on the chairs at Holy Trinity

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Coming Home

Map of the eastern part of North Carolina
So many images, sounds and even smells are crowding my mind and competing for space as I write this first "blog" from the USA. On this third Sunday of Advent the writer to the Church at Thessalonica exhorts us to "Be at peace with one another." In Rich Lischer's book, The End of Words, he quotes Miroslav Volf in his book, Exclusion and Embrace. "...Volf asks the critical question, which might be paraphrased as follows: What is the defining mark of human life - is it the undeniable fact of that special identity that makes me me and you you, and our group what it is and their group something other, or is it the equally undeniable fact of some wider bond of humanity that we hold in common? Must identity trump community?" (Lischer, page 141).

Blair and I arrived in Rome on Thursday to stay near the airport for our Friday departure. After getting settled in our room we walked over to the airport to familiarize ourselves with the terminal. It was such a feast for the eyes and ears. All that "human community" of various shades, languages, and dress gathered in one place. There were several Chinese families whose lovely Mongolian features were distinctive. They were small and sturdywith dark hair and eyes and rounded faces. Their children were so beautiful! We saw one young mom in what for her was likely a traditional position of squatting. She was cradling her young child and giving it milk from a bottle. I so envied her limber knees! Languages came at our ears from all corners of the earth. I looked around and thought, "This is my family." This is what Volf means when he says that there is a wider bond of humanity.

We travelled for close to 21 hours by the time we arrived in Wilmington, NC. We missed a connecting flight in NYC because the plane left an hour later from Rome and then suddenly we were loaded into Blair's car with her dear partner Inza driving us through the eastern North Carolina fields. I felt totally jerked back into a different existence! Sights, sounds, and smells that have not been a part of my world for 5 weeks and even years. The sights of clean, modern buildings, SUVs on the road, Christmas decorations on every post and corner; the sounds of Christmas music, English language being spoken everywhere; and the smell of the cash crop of East Carolina - hog lagoons -- all this and more coming at me very, and sometimes, too fast. I am sure some of it is jet lag but tears seem to come to my eyes quickly as I realize, with a grateful and somewhat embarrased heart, the abundance that I live with.

And so as the journey continues I hope I can put more of the pieces together, but first comes washing clothes and visiting friends from this part of the world.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I am reading Richard Lischer's book pictured above. The subtitle is "The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence." Rich Lischer is one of those people who you want to listen to. He teaches homiletics (preaching) at Duke Divinity School in Durham, NC and he has written several books. My favorite book by Lischer is "The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word That Moved America."

In "End of Words" Lischer writes, "...Contemporary preachers cannot help but notice a growing dissonance between message and sensorium, between gospel and the all encompassing sea of words, images, and ideologies within which we attempt to communicate it [the gospel]." I am connecting these words of Lischer's with my own pondering about how ministry or creativity can happen in the midst of the barrage of media, and "busy life distractions" which fill our days. Perhaps our Italian friends have the right idea - close everything in the early afternoon and rest, listen to our interior life, visit oneanother, or create something before going back to work.

How can we hear Jesus saying "Blessed are the peacemakers" in a sea of violent images which come our way day after day? Can we hear St. Catherine of Siena saying to Pope Gregory XI, "Act like a man, go against your advisors and do what is the right thing?" Really hearing these words in the midst of an overwhelming culture of greed might encourage me to stand up to what is wrong. Rocking the boat is scary. Is there any way left in our self - focused culture for going against popular opinion? Can we hear St. Francis saying, "Where there is hatred, sow love?" The fields of my own heart produce more and more reasons why I shouldn't love. Sowing love is dangerous because it might yield change in me. I might have to be forgiven by someone I don't want to like. Or I might have to forgive someone and then find that I do like them! This is scary stuff and I believe it is the work of reconciliation.

This is a picture taken from Mt. Subasio above Assisi. These are the snow covered mountains north of us (thankfully).
And, as I sort of tidy things up to get ready to fly back to the US tomorrow, here is a poem I wrote about our rainy day in Siena. It was evening as we made our way back to the car and hard to find our way.

Bowed heads;
stone steps slick with rain;
missed turns.
Out of the stormy evening
she appears with hand extended.
Long skirt
sweeping our way;
covered head
lifted to the right.

Lost is broken;
the missed street found -
straight ahead.
each time with “grazie” on our lips;
in each hand offered that St. Catherine
is alive
in her people.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Blair Both, Guest Blogger

Sculpture of St. Francis from St. Damiano

I invited Blair to "blog" and she has graciously offered her reflections about this Italian journey. Blair and I have been friends for 25 years. She is an ordained Episcopal priest living in Wilmington, NC with her partner Inza Walston.
10 December 2008, Assisi

Wonder and gratitude encompass me.

+ For the “long obedience in the same direction” which I have come to see in the life and work of Michelangelo. The energy escaping from marble and the figures in the Sistine Chapel.

+ For the unspoken words of St. Francis which are heard inside and out as one walks in Assisi.
+ For the devotion and courage of St. Catherine as I imagine her preaching to popes and cardinals in Siena and beyond.

I wish I knew the Italian word for “thin places” as the Celtic Christians called holy ground. Tuscany and Umbria have their share.

Wonder and gratitude are magnified by being the invited traveling companion of my dear friend Martha for the Italian part of her sabbatical. To have an Advent filled with Annunciations and Nativity scenes of Giotto, Fra Angelico and many others has been a nice change from the Christmas decorations since Halloween.

Traipsing up and down endless stone stairs, making the baptismal sign countless times on my forehead in yet another chapel or basilica, being welcomed back to our Montalto castle-home each night by Leo, the gentle German shepherd. Wonderful, rich images and such lovely people.

So many images pointing to God, Source of Wonder and Gratitude
who grants to us God’s children wonder and gratitude.
Dear Loving Creator, please keep opening up my eyes and heart.

Blair Both

Sculpture of St. Francis at St. Damiano

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Assisi...and Florence again!

St. James Episcopal Church in Florence, Italy

This weekend in Italy is a three – day holiday. It is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (of Mary). So the banks are closed tomorrow. Today we went took the train to Florence to go to St. James, the American Episcopal Church. It, like St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome, is a beautiful church and both are what I think of as “cathedral sized churches.” It was a lovely and lively service.

From the looks of Florence today the holiday was being utilized for Christmas shopping! The stores were brightly lighted with Christmas decorations and people were rushing by with their purchases. Blair and I went to the Galleria dell'Accademia . Just like our experience with the Uffizi, we were able to walk in and get tickets without waiting. While the museum had a goodly number of visitors we were able to feast on the art without crowds. One of our main goals in going was to see David, Michelangelo’s astounding sculpture. Seeing it for the first time at a distance was breathtaking! The closer we came to the sculpture the more awe inspiring it became. It is much larger than thought it would be. The details that Michelangelo was able to carve from stone were phenomenal. David’s hands, and especially his right one along his side, were so beautifully worked. His hand curved around the stone was so detailed it seemed to move. The limited tools of these artists, gives evidence to the limitless energy invested in bringing images to life in all forms of art.

The Church of San Francesco in Assisi, Italy
Yesterday we took a short trip to Assisi. We will go back this week for a couple of days to explore the life of St. Francis. We did visit the Church of San Francesco. In fact we took several hours to go with an audio guide through the many frescoes in the church. Many of these frescoes depicted Francis’ life and ministry. Francis, like Catherine of Siena, listened to God with ears that were finely tuned to hear holy things. Like the artist’s work that we have seen here, the devotion of the great saints of God seems to come at a great price to the ordinary things of life. Their attention to creating and/or ministry rendered so many other things in their lives as secondary. Being immersed in this world leaves me wondering what things are so important in my life that I will set aside the “stuff” of life that gets in the way so I can be more focused in listening to God and being creative. Both Catherine and Francis heard and responded to God’s call in radical ways. It was, one could say, a time when the world needed great saints to overcome enormous struggles in society and in the church. And I wonder about our time. Who are the people who are willing to “tune out” the noise of the world in order to hear God’s voice in new and unpredictable ways? Who will create the great images of art that will render the next generation speechless in their presence?

Friday, December 5, 2008


Yesterday we were out early to ride the train to Florence. We went immediately to the Uffizi Museum. With unheard of speed we bought our tickets and entered into the world of art. We had done some work the night before researching this huge gallery so that our energy would be spent on the pieces we particularly wanted to see. Isn't it interesting that the piece that particularly caught my attention was not a major piece of art on that list!? The particular painting (pictured above) is by a little known artist Lorenzo di Alesandro la Sanseverino. It is entitled "Pieta" and was painted c. 1491. What caught my attention in this painting are the faces. The grief of John, the beloved disciple (on the right), Mary and Mary Magdalene (on the left) is so evident. Their hands on Jesus' body are tender and loving. I was very moved by this painting.

Pieta by Michelangelo

After the Uffizi, which was like eating triple fudge cake with chocolate ice cream, we rested our eyes and brain before trying to "digest" any other pieces of art. We enjoyed the beautiful buildings of Florence and the store fronts decorated for Christmas. Christmas decorations here are really low key but they are beautifully done. Being here in cooler weather and experiencing the holiday festivities is nice. There are not as many tourists and walking is easier without the crowds. After lunch we went to Museo of the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori). Here we found the above sculpture of Michelangelo. It was done by him when he was 80 years old and meant to be the piece for his burial crypt. The Pieta is of Nicodemus holding Jesus with Mary while Mary Magdalene looks on. Nicodemus is a self portrait of Michelangelo and Mary and Jesus' faces are incomplete because Michelangelo lost interest in the sculpture before finishing it. I sat for some time looking at this sculpture. As I looked at Nicodemus' face I kept wondering, "What is it that Nicodemus wants me to do?" Michelangeo's talent was to free the images he saw from the stone. Nicodemus seems to be asking me to free Jesus from some of the ways that we cast him in stone and keep him from being alive in our hearts. I'm not sure I came away with the answers to these questions but these two pieces of art, both Pietas, have stayed with me.

Today is a very cold and rainy day. The rain has come in driving sheets. We are staying at the castle today to rest, clean, cook and read. It is a great day for all of those activities.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Siena and St. Catherine

St. Catherine of Siena 1347 -1380

at her home and sanctuary

Yesterday we had an early start to Siena. The sky was partly cloudy when we started but by the time we arrived in Siena a steady cold rain was falling. Undeterred by the rain we found our parking spot and up we went into Siena. Our first stop was The Church of San Dominico. This church was Catherine's family church. San Dominico was begun in 1225 and completed in 1226. Later additions included vaulted ceilings, a tower and the crypts below the church. The crypts were first built in order to accomodate the massive columns which support the weight of the building. Later these crypts were burial places for the people of the parish. Catherine's entire family (she had 22 brothers and sisters!) are buried here. San Dominico sits on one "edge" of this walled hill town. It looks out over the valley below with majesty. Catherine is prominently displayed throughout San Dominico. While her body is enshrined in Rome, one of her fingers and her head are displayed here. There are many chapels in this church - my favorite is the Madonna chapel and I loved sitting there to pray yesterday.

From this massive church we walked a short distance down the hill to Catherine's home. Her home is a Dominican Convent and it incorporates a museum of her life including a wonderful sanctuary which is quite feminine and ornate compared to the huge, stark nature of San Dominico. In the sanctuary is the huge icon cross of Jesus. It is in front of this cross that Catherine received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) on her hands, feet and side. There are so many wonderful pictures of Catherine. In one of the pictures she is standing before a group of people clothed in her Dominican habit with her right hand raised in blessing. It is said by her biographer that the Dominican priests and monks often deferred to Catherine's spiritual guidance.

So I found myself praying with St. Catherine yesterday that a spirit of unity might prevail in the Church. Catherine was a great reconciler. In her 33 years of life she accomplished much. Of all her accomplishments perhaps the most notable was her ability to reconcile the Papacy to its home in Rome. What many historians call the "second schism or Western schism" in the church (the first being the division betwee the eastern and the western church in 1066) involved a dispute between the Pope and the Roman Emperor about who would be the leader of Christendom in secular matters. In 1305 the Roman Curia (the Pope and his Cardinals) moved from Rome to Avignon France. The next 6 popes were French and their appointed legates were also French. The issues involved in this schism are complicated but at its center is the question of who will have power over the Italian cities and people. In 1374 Pope Gregory XI issued an embargo against grain exports during a food scarcity. The government in Florence organized a league of cities in Italy against the Papacy. In turn severe policies were instituted against these cities by the Papal legate. Florence came into open conflict with the Pope and in 1375 he issued an interdict against Florence to excommunicate the entire city. As a retort Florence stopped paying Papal taxes. These actions severely inhibited trade and solutions were sought. Catherine writes her first letter to Gregory XI imploring him to come back to Rome and end the conflict with Florence. The magistrates in Florence send Catherine to Avignon in 1376 as their ambassador. She reaches Avignon in June and meets with Gregory in August. On September 13 both she and Gregory start their journey back to Italy. She goes to Pisa and Gregory XI restores the Papal residency in Rome. The conflict between the Papacy and the Roman government did not end until the Council of Constance in 1417. Catherine was instrumental on many occasions in seeking an end to this conflict.

The incredible gift of Catherine's ability to reconcile people to God and oneanother came from her love of God. Her greatest love was Jesus. She had no need of any other and yet her life was full with the richness of people and events. When faced with the chaos, whether it was the plague or Church schism, Catherine turned to the sanctuary she trusted most - the place in her heart where Jesus resided. Her great abilities to heal sickness and division came from that place. Here is a poem attributed to Catherine:

The Sanctuary

It could be said that God's foot is so vast,

that this entire earth is but a

field on His


And all the forests in the world

came from the same root of

just a single hair

of His.

What then is not a sanctuary?

Where can I not kneel

and pray at a shrine

made holy by His


Outside St. Catherine's Sanctuary looking back towards the tower of The Church of San Dominico

Monday, December 1, 2008

Montalto Home

Montalto Castle in the distance
Friday we arrived at our next home in Italy. We left Rome after picking up our rental car around 11 am and we drove north in what can only be described as “pouring down rain.” As we rounded the curve around 3:30pm the castle of Montalto rose up out of the misty Tuscan mountains taking our breath away.

Montalto is technically Castello di Montalto della Berardenga. It dates back a thousand years. The earliest document found regarding the castle is dated in the year 1004. It has passed through a series of families (including the Berardenga family), destroyed at least once in 1208, and is still a working farm, producing olives for olive oil and many crops. The owner now is a cousin by marriage of the last family to own the castle. Giovanni and his American born wife Diana are gracious hosts. Diana met us in the courtyard of the castle and after looking around a bit, we settled into our apartment. It is lovely with a small fireplace for coziness.
The Annunciation by Fra Angelico - c. 1432
Yesterday (Saturday) we went to Cortona to see Fra Angelico’s painting of the Annunciation. The painting is at the much understated Museo Diocesano. Everything in Cortona is either up a hill or down a hill. After a lovely lunch we “strolled” over to the Museo Diocesano and stood before the incredible painting of a bigger than life angel announcing to Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. It’s hard to know the intentions of the artist as the painting began. Did he begin with the small figures of Adam and Eve in the upper left hand corner of the painting? He pictures them being ushered out of the Garden of Eden by an angel. Did he begin the painting with the angel who is more central, elaborate in detail and glowing with gold leaf? Or did he begin with the small, almost imperceptible face of God in the column? Whatever began Fra Angelico’s journey to the Annunciation, he pictures this event as a part of God’s reconciling love. The angel is on the same plane with Mary in the painting and the angel’s hands draw the drama. One hand points to God and the other to Mary as if a holy transfer is taking place. Over her head the dove representing the Holy Spirit oversees this encounter. “God is in Jesus reconciling the world to himself.” That’s the way Paul talks about Jesus in one of his letters. In another he refers to Jesus as the “new Adam.” This Adam will not be exiled and in fact he will bring us into the Father’s kingdom with him. This is a powerful painting.

The Abbey Church of Saint Antimo

Today we went to the Abbey of Sant’ Antimo near Montalcino, a drive of about an hour and a half. We encountered almost every kind of weather on the way over – rain, hail, thunder and lightning and even sunshine! The roads were “S” shaped, and in a few places “Z” shaped. But oh my, the incredible views of the Tuscan country where vineyards and olive trees rule! There were also fields of winter wheat just beginning to green a bit. How the farmers keep from falling off of (or out of) their farm equipment on the steep slopes amazes me.

The Abbey is spectacular and the service was sung in Gregorian Chant. We were able to participate chiefly because the liturgy is the same as ours. While we were relatively unfamiliar with the languages (both Latin and Italian) the weight of the worship for me was in knowing that I was worshipping with brothers and sisters in a place where for 1300 years Christians had gathered to worship. During the service the sun broke through streaming in the windows making pools of light on the stone floor. As the weather cleared the vineyards and fields – fall colored – were visible through the windows behind the altar. Incense mingled with our own breath steaming from our mouths into the cold church. It was an incredible worship experience for me.

As we entered the church tense from our wild weathered ride, I glanced over to the stone font with holy water in it. There on the edge of this stone bowl sat a large grey and white cat drinking holy water! When I dipped my fingers into the water the cat gave me a look that can only be described as territorial. I did not let my fingers linger in the water. Afterwards as I took a few pictures I realized that the pedestal on which the bowl rested was a cat like figure.

The Cat's Perch at the Abbey!

The Olive Trees of Tuscany