Friday, February 27, 2009

Pregnant with God in Foligno (but not in Perugia!)

Pregnant with God

Last week we accompanied the Senora Traub and the "Saints and Relics" class on a trip to to view the body of the Blessed Angela of Foligno . A medieval city that sits on a plain with virtually no hills and few remaining historic structures, Foligno is an anomaly in this region. Nonetheless, it has a rich history dating back to pre-Roman Umbria, and played an important role in the story of Francis and his followers. For example, when Francis was trying to raise money to restore the chapel of San Damiano he took some of his father's cloth stock and sold it in Foligno, a center of commerce at the time. Foligno's strategic position and its shifting alliances with Pope and Emperor made it a natural enemy of Perugia to the north and west, which tore down its walls in 1282 after it had betrayed its former ally. In more recent times, Foligno's location made it a good location for a rail link to Perugia, and therefore a site for an important rail yard. Unfortunately, this invited Allied bombing during WW II, thus the unfortunate loss of many historic sites and the dreary modernity of many of its buildings.

( The photo to the right captures the sad aesthetic of Foligno. Notice the small remnant of Foligno's medieval wall lost in a background of modern high rises.)

While there we visited the church of San Francesco, which contains the Sanctuary of the Blessed Angela where her remains are still on display. We were treated to a lecture by a jolly friar, Fr. Dominic about the life and significance of Angela. The lecture was in Italian, but I think I was able to glean many details (augmented by a bit or research, of course.) Angela lived about a generation after Francis's death and as the story goes, lived a life of noble luxury and dubious morality. As she entered middle age, she lost her husband and parents, possibly to some plague or epidemic. She made a confession, but apparently she concealed a particularly shameful sin from her confessor, but took communion nonetheless -- a very bad sacrilege! So she prayed to Francis for help, and he appeared to her in a dream. Following this she led a life of penance, including anorexia mirabilis, and had a profound mystical experience. She dictated an account of her conversion and mysticism to her confessor and this was published as the Book of Visions and Instructions. Fr. Dominic quoted from this work a particularly striking phrase:
"Il mondo è incinto con il dio" (The world is pregnant with God.)

Although she is not an official saint, Angela is the patron of widows, theologians, those who struggle against sexual temptation, and for people who are ridiculed for their piety (although not only for those who meet all these criteria at once!)

Finally a European Country!

Returning to Perugia, we were greeted by a scene not often encountered in Italy: an information table set up to advocate for the UAAR (The Italian Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.) In their literature, they advocate to make Italy "finalmente un paese europeo" (finally a European country) including the recognition of civil unions, living wills, no discrimination based on sexual orientation, more liberal divorce laws, and de- criminalizing euthanasia, and opposition to renaming the main train station in Rome (Termini di Roma) which the current right-wing mayor wants to change to "John Paul II." Most recently, UAAR sponsored a showing of "The Life of Brian" on Darwin Day in Venice.
(I've added a picture of this unique display, including a button I purchased which reads "No to the Vatican, No to Jihad.")

Monday, February 23, 2009

From A to Z (Assisi to Zurich)


The beginning of February means our annual class field trip to Assisi. What more can I say? San Damiano, Santa Chiara, Palazzo Vescovado, the Temple of Minerva, the incredible frescoes of Giotto, Cimabue, and Sanmartino, the chapel of the Porziuncula inside the huge Santa Maria degli Angeli and, of course, the transcendant Pizza al Tartufo at I Monaci.
For me the best part was sharing the experience with students seeing it for the very first time.

(Team Francis '09, Left to Right: Senora Traub, Raffaella, Jessica, Ashlee, Phil, Nikki, Noel, Patrick, Linda, Me, Nick, Prof. Hoch, Rino, Mary, Carla, Kristin, Shannon, Angela, Sarah, Mrs. C)

It always make me feel a proprietary sense of pride to be able to answer students questions: what happened here? Why is this important? When is lunch? Aboveis a grand group photograph taken by a gentle nun from Our Lady of Glassboro, NJ.
Grazie Sorella!!


Off we go to Zurich, Switzerland and the Crazy Cow Hotel. I don't know how or why it got that name, but I do know that we began to wonder whether we were a bit crazy to leave the relatively mild weather of central Italy for the bone-chilling cold of northern Switzerland! Of course Zurich is a beautiful little city and sometime home to Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and Tina Turner
. Besides the cold, the city was unbelievably expensive AND almost all the restaurants were Italian! But the old city was very walkable, beautiful and clean. (I saw a guy actually pick up a scrap of paper from the pavement and put it in the trash. In Italy we see the reverse!) Another wonderful contrast is that English-language films were subtitled rather than dubbed, as they are in Italy. Some as a refuge from the cold and the high prices, we used the time for a pre-Oscar catch-up: Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, Doubt and Revolutionary Road. In Zurich, movie theatres have reserved seats which seemed to suit the local practice of orderliness. But more, they have intermissions! In the middle of the film, no matter what is going on, the movie stops, the lights go on, and a message appears on the screen:

"Why not get some ice cream?"

Ice cream?? Are you kidding? In this frozen city? Hot chocolate maybe.

But even getting hot chocolate was an adventure: I must confess that we visited the local Starbucks in our quest. For one thing, American franchises for all their familiarity and cheesiness are at least smoke-free, and that is a real benefit. Unfortunately, the chocolate was not too hot. Above is a little video featuring the wonderful Mrs. C offering a critique of the hot chocolate at the Zurich Starbucks.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Todi: "a moment, a twinkling"

Our colleague, Maria Traub, (left) organized a class trip to Todi. Her class, Saints and Relics is only open to Franciscan Heritage Program students. But I think that we have tapped into something real in the hearts and minds of our students. I judge that by the number of students from other classes who ask to join our group as we travel to places around Umbria. Church after church, crypt after crypt.
We visited the the beautiful, if slightly shabby, church of San Fortunato, noting frescoes resembling those of Giotto in Assisi and a fragment of the famous Virgin with Child and Angels by Masolino da Panicale. (See above right.)

Housed under San Fortunato, are the remains of the famous but controversial Franciscan poet and spiritualist Jacopone de Todi. (His image on the outside wall is shown on the left.) According to legend, Jacopone, was a nobleman educated in law at Bologne. In his early forties, a floor gave way in his home during a fancy ball and his wife was crushed to death. He discovered, to his great surprise, that his wife was wearing a hairshirt of a penitent under her gown. Subsequently, he became a Franciscan, following strictly the original form of life of Francis of Assisi. And this brought him into conflict with the Pope who advocated a less stringent form of Franciscan life. Jacopone is best known for his religious poetry. Here's a sample:

So many proud princes, and power so splendid,
In a moment, a twinkling, all utterly ended.
- De Contemptu Mundi

We’ve been to Todi three times; twice in pouring rain and once in unbearable summer heat. Too bad. Todi is beautiful, with the magnificent Piazza dei Popolo bordered by the twenty-nine steps of the Duomo.
Finally, is the must-see Santa Maria della Consolazione with its beautiful dome and epicyclical interior. The design of this church is attributed to Bramante, better known for his design of St. Peter’s although this is disputed. The story of this church is that it was built to celebrate the miraculous restoration of sight of a worker who had wiped his face and eyes with a rag that he had used to dust the image of the Virgin Mary.

(From top clockwise: Rino, Judy, Me, Patrick, Noel, Phil, Mike, Maria Traub.)

Of course, the highlight of the day for me was the wonderful pranzo we ate with the students at Pane e Vino. (Only later did I realize the theological significance of this name!)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Classes begin

At last, classes begin. My course is called “Contemporary Global Issues: The Franciscan World View.” However, much to my distress the very first class meeting was a bit overshadowed by the inauguration of President Obama. As we all know now, the US Constitution begins the President's term at noon on January 20, which means 6 PM in Perugia, and my class (5:15 to 6:45 PM) straddled the most important parts: the Oath of Office and acceptance speech. Of course, we couldn't cancel the first class, but modern technology partially resolved the dilemma by switching from power point to streaming CNN video projected on the wall. Prose to poetry. ridiculous to sublime. I quietly included into the powerpoint an image I found in Google that sums up the spirit of the class. Take a look, but please Francis and Obama fans, don’t take offense!

The following week we hosted the distinguished
medieval scholar, Jacques Dalarun. Jacques graciously
agreed to come up from Rome to address our class.
Actually, he was quite enthusiastic to visit us and did a

fantastic presentation. He led the class through an
example of the sort of research he does: reading,
translating and interpreting Francis’s letter to Brother Leo.
The original is displayed in nearby Spoleto, (see above left) and I hope to get the students there eventually. (Above right is a picture of Jacques in Perugia with Assisi over his shoulder.)

Supper at San Isidoro, Sambuca at the Pantheon, Fog in Assisi, Chinese Food in Perugia

One of the immediate benefits of our senza cane status was our ability to take an overnight to Rome to have dinner and drinks with some old friends: Tim Noone, Jacques Dalarun and Marybeth Ingham at Collegio San Isidoro, which is the Franciscan House for the Province of Ireland, replete with a chapel decorated by Bernini and a tradition that goes back to the great Franciscan scholar, Luke Wadding. (See picture.) Although, according to Jacques, Napolean once used the chapel to stable horses. I have a special debt to the friars of San Isidoro. Here's the story:

In the mid-19th century, Bishop Timon of Buffalo, went to Rome for the official Proclamation of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. While he was there, he asked the Minister General of the Franciscans to send some missionaries to the Buffalo area to work with the Irish immigrants who were building the Erie Canal. Timon was referred to San Isodoro where he met one of the professors, an Italian named Father Panfilo from the town of Magliano, in the Abruzzi region. He spoke English fluently and was convinced to come to the Buffalo diocese to minister to English speaking workers. In June of 1855, four Franciscans arrived in New York and made their way to Buffalo, where they established parishes and schools including Saint Bonaventure University.

The next picture shows Tim, Jacques, Judy and me.

After dinner, Tim, Jacques, Judy and I went out for café e sambuca at an outdoor café with the Pantheon a few steps (quattro passi) away. This is NOT the usual fish-fry that one does on a Friday night in Franklinville.

The next day we returned to Umbria, but stopped in Assisi first. There we joined a group from the Umbra Institute. Assisi was shrouded in fog that day, but I snapped a couple of pictures. Perhaps the most bizarre is an installation, a Nativity scene, in the Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco by Kurt Laurenz Metzler, called "Neurotic Metropolitan Nativity" described in the local press as an invitation to dialogue and hope."
Judge for yourself.

I've also added a very unusual, totally random,
presentation of the image of Francis.

The next day we took our students to La grande Shanghai,
a Chinese restaurant near the Stranieri. I know,you're asking: why go to a Chinese restaurant in Italy? Well it is pretty cheap (I paid the tab) and the kids loved it Here’s a picture:

Clockwise: Judy, Carla, Samantha, Angela,
Sarah, Noel, Mike, Phil and Senora Traub.

Perugia observes the World. The World observes Perugia

The semester here begins with an orientation meeting in the beautiful, Sala de Notari, in the Palazzo dei Priori. As we departed the session we were greeted by a raucous but non violent protest demonstration for peace in Palestine. (Our American students are always surprised to find the incredible ethnic and racial diversity and the relative absence of spoken English here.) Many of the marchers carried the now familiar rainbow “PACE” flags, one or two Italian flags, and many flags of Palestine. The signs and chants were not so much for peace, but against the US and Israel. I’ve inserted a little movie just to give you an idea of what we saw.

The rest of the world usually pays little attention to Perugia, but over the last year or so, a lot of negative publicity has been generated by “il delitto de Perugia” the awful murder of an English student at the Stranieri for which 3 young people, a young female student from Seattle, her Italian regazzo from Puglia, and an African immigrant, are now on trial. You can tell when court is in session by the panoply of satellite dish trucks filling the via Baglione outside the Perugian courthouse. I’ve pasted a picture of this scene as well. Here an anchor guy is trying to figure out what to say. The Italian and English media cover the smallest detail, even what Beatle song Amanda sings and plays on her guitar. (You can imagine this one yourself -- I don't think I want to go there.) Speaking of "going there" 0ur friend Laura, an Italian lawyer, had offered to get us into the trial -- they have an English translator -- but we were scheduled to go to Assisi that day. The choices don't get much more dissimilar than that!

Siamo qui ancora! (Here we are again!)

Here we are again in Perugia for another semester of the Franciscan Heritage Program. We’re back on Paradise Street, la via de Paradiso, but this time we had to leave Dodger back in the US. So we are senza cane! Besides saving a lot of money and customs hassles, we are now considerably freer to enjoy our leisure time in Italy. Although we are far from home I have not lost my addiction to news, especially political news. And the two big items here have been the war in Gaza and the impending inauguration of Obama. We'll get into that later; first the basics.
Perugia is a very small city perched upon a saddle-back hill-top overlooking the Spoleto Valley built millennia ago by Etruscans. The Etruscans built a huge wall around the original city, much of which still stands. Another wall was built, I believe in the middle ages a few hundred meters beyond the original one. Our home is below the Etruscan wall, but inside the medieval wall, beyond which is a unremarkable modern Italian city. Our apartment is in a 1,000 year old building from which troops once guarded two of the gates of the medieval wall. In the next picture, you can see our little apartment as viewed through the Porta Eburnea, in the outer medieval wall. Look up the street and you'll see a yellow wall.

Look closely, that's me inside the window blogging away

But although old, walled and relatively remote, Perugia is surprisingly in touch with the rest of the world. This is probably due to the presence of the Universita per Stanieri (The university for foreigners) to which students come from all over the world in order to study the beautiful lingua italiana. And many never leave.