Posted: August 18
Wednesday in Tuscany
Rome in August is quiet, beautifully so, and this year the heat has been very bearable. I even felt a bit of a chill early Sunday morning when I set out for a bicycle ride. August means very little traffic, but the key thing is that the city empties out and the workmen go away with their families, so there is no banging and hammering from the incessant repair work on our building. Most of the employees here at the Jesuit Curia are also on vacation so I have been able to dig into some projects that take more concentration than I can muster when we are going full steam. On the other hand, not much is happening, so writing a blog slows down a lot. Best of all, though, is that I have more chance to paint. The two paintings on the Jesuit Voices home page were just recently finished. I want to tell the back story of the one with the sea of red poppies.
My sister Rosemary and her family came to visit in June, and we spent a few days in Tuscany in an apartment on an “agriturismo” farm that was grows wheat and grapes and also cares for guests. Tuscany is as spectacular as people say, a bit more lush, a lot softer than the rough mountains near Rome. It is a warm and welcoming area, and we felt very much at home. We rented a car and drove north from Rome. I kept stopping to look for fields of poppies that come wild to Italy in the late spring. I saw a whole field a few years ago when I was out on a bicycle ride and have wanted to paint them ever since, but they come when the want to and so far I have never been at the right time and place even to get a photograph like the image in my memory.
We stopped once near Montepulciano, but the field was not all that full of the bright red blooms and there was no interesting background. Every once in awhile I saw something intriguing in the distance, but nothing close by. We got to the farm and settled in, then my brother-in-law (another Tom) and I set out to find food to cook for the evening meal. The nearest village was only a few kilometers away so we drove over and quickly went through its whole two-block length without seeing anything that looked like a food store. I asked someone where the food store was and they graciously explained it was just back around the corner. We turned around and repeated the trip and quickly ended up on the other end of town without seeing any store. I pulled into a side street to talk to some men relaxing in the shade of a tree.
”Where is the food store,” I asked in reasonable Italian.
“You just drove by it twice,” came the reply. The helpful man pointed out a store that we had indeed driven by, but it was closed.
I protested that fact, but he just shrugged and explained that today was Wednesday and all the food stores in Tuscany were closed on Wednesday afternoon. It was the custom. And in fact, I had not asked where I could find a store that was open.
“What about food for tonight?” I asked in desperation.
“Umbria, go to Umbria; their stores close on Thursday.”
He pointed that the nearest town in Umbria was only five kilometers away, so Tom and I set out determined to be successful hunter-gatherers. We went through the town and dropped down a long sloping descent and turned the corner to find the treasure trove of all fields of poppies: an uncultivated field absolutely filled with the red flowers, so much so that they flowed together into a carpet in the distance. It was exactly what I wanted and better than I hoped for. We pulled over and both took out cameras. (Hint: if you are a maniac photographer, always go hunter-gathering with another photographer who doesn’t mind tromping all over a field getting every angle and absorbing the scene deeply into memory.)
And that’s how I got the source material for the poppy painting.
Posted: June 9
In the footsteps of St. Ignatius
(Spain) I have been talking to many people about the great potential for online learning and distance education, but until last week I had not actually worked on a course. Now I know more about the process, and am even more enthusiastic about the potential of this new way of offering Jesuit education. Michael Carey, a professor from Gonzaga University in Spokane, and Cindy Bonfini-Hotlosz, a producer from JesuitNet, met me in Barcelona to start a very full week of traveling across northern Spain to film segments for the introduction that Mike had written for a course for Gonzaga’s leadership master’s degree program. We were focused on just part of the life of St. Ignatius, from his injury at Pamplona to his departure from Barcelona for the Holy Land.
Mike talked about the transformation that he underwent as a model for the process of transformation necessary to form leaders. This is a slightly different twist to a story very familiar to me. Part of my job was to provide my Jesuit-specific knowledge to Mike’s psychological and developmental theory approach. The added value was that Mike described what Ignatius went through almost 500 years ago as Mike stood in the exact places where the story took place. This method provide students with a context for what they are studying and makes the material more concrete. It gives the story body and emotion which help students connect Ignatius’ experience to their own.
We started off in Barcelona and went backwards towards Loyola, his place of birth. The itinerary included the Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, the old town of Manresa, Pamplona where he was wounded, and Loyola. The weather cooperated and my Spanish helped open doors as necessary. Cindy shot the high-definition videotape and I took still photographs, lots of them. Now I just have to identify and log them in. It’s more fun to get in a car with friends and drive across Spain, but you have to do the homework to finish everything as well. No wonder Ignatius always liked to call himself “the Pilgrim.”
Posted: May 23
A time for retreat
(Monte Cucco) This name might sound like a mountain town where clock makers live, but it actually refers to a small hill in what has become the suburbs on the south side of Rome. A group of Spanish sisters run a retreat house there that offers Ignatian spiritual exercises offered only by Jesuits. It is a pretty good deal: they run the house and we Jesuits get to do the talking. I come here once a year to give an eight-day retreat to sisters from all over the world. This year my group is 20 women from India, the Philippines, Australia, England, Indonesia, Canada and the United States. It is a pleasure to do face-to-face communication for a change and to spend my day talking about Jesus rather than bit rates, podcasts, photographs or communication strategy.
The Roman weather has been variable, which means alternating between glorious sunshine and monsoon rains. Fortunately, the retreat house is a large building with enough space to wander around inside without going crazy. Since I have given this retreat four times now, I am getting into the groove. We meet once a day in the morning for about a 45-minute talk where I sketch out a theme for the day and explore the gospel reading that will serve to guide the retreatants through the day. Most of the rest of the time they are on their own and I meet with them individually to talk about what is happening during the retreat. The stories are pretty fascinating, but fortunately for the retreatants I cannot talk about them since whatever they tell me is confidential..
I know that concrete examples help people to understand the point, so when I started giving these retreats, I hit on the idea of talking about movies that illustrate the day’s theme. Movies are public domain, after all, and you can talk about the characters in them as though they were real. And in the best movies the people are real, if the actors and director do their jobs right. This year I tried an experiment and actually showed two movies. Babette’s Feast tells the story of a French woman who escapes the Revolution and seeks refuge with two Danish sisters whose father was pastor of a strict Protestant sect. The movie has multiple themes that touch a retreat, especially the question of how we imagine God’s dealing with us—in great abundance or very strict and demanding. The second film was Dead Man Walking which recounts the true story of a sister from New Orleans who accompanies a condemned murderer during his final days up to and including his execution. That movie helped us see the broader meaning of conversion as taking responsibility for the consequences of our decisions; in this case Sister Helen Prejean had to follow out all she believed about God’s mercy and forgiveness in order to minister to someone who was not at all appealing or easy to be with. .
I think the experiment worked well and that both movies helped my retreatants to pray better. They certainly gave me a lot to think about. I know that other Jesuits have written about movies as related to a retreat, but I was not sure if actually showing the films would help or hinder the silence and prayerfulness of the eight days. The answer—they helped it a lot.
Posted: May 16
(Rome) Pentecost has come and gone, putting an end to the Easter season and the long passage from Lent, which started during the general congregation. That all seems like eons ago now, although I am just now getting back to some ongoing projects after being submerged by the congregation. I met again with my friends from the One Laptop per Child Foundation who are preparing a special offer that will allow schools run by religious orders to buy the wonderful XO computer in whatever quantities they need. Originally OLPC thought they would just work with governments and go for really large numbers of computers. Then they realized that the Church runs grade schools all over the world, especially in some of the least developed countries in the kind of areas for which the XO computer has no competition. I just got an updated version of the production model, and it is really slick.
Yesterday Microsoft announced that it was porting a special version of its Windows operating system that would work on the XO. This will make it easier for some countries to adopt the computer, but OLPC’s insight about moving towards Open Source software and encouraging a whole new ethic of educators working together freely to share what they know is still very attractive to me.
On a related note, the Messina Commons project is also back in my sights. At the congregation we talked about this exciting project to link Jesuit educational resources with pastoral and social needs all over the world. Now we are working on it again. This is all part of ongoing efforts to help our communications apostolate develop; it happens in ordinary time, but it is actually quite extraordinary.
Posted: April 29
Clear skies and new ideas
(Brussels) The experienced traveler would not thinking of heading north to Brussels, Belgium, without a sturdy umbrella close at hand. I had one with me on Friday as I set out from the retreat house where the communication group of Jesuits from central and Eastern Europe were to meet. But I did not need it then, nor on Saturday, nor on Sunday—this was without doubt the best weather that I have ever known in Belgium. The spring was just at hand and the grass was a deep, rich green. The retreat house itself is an old Franciscan monastery, a bit on the Spartan side for my tastes, but the meeting went very well anyway.
I introduced some of the themes about communication that came up during the recent general congregation, and I think that they open up a fruitful line for development. Instead of thinking of communication as an extremely specialized endeavor for a few Jesuits, the notion now is that communication is an integral part of all that we do. This opens up a lot more areas to work in and broadens the scope of the communication apostolate dramatically. The Jesuits who came to Brussels are specialists in different areas, some academic, others in production. Fr. Christof Wolf showed us the trailer for a new documentary film he recently completed about a multi-faith prayer service that takes place at Auschwitz every year. It takes a lot of time and money to make a movie, so if we reduce the discussion to such difficult endeavors, then we miss the opportunity for many other things that are perhaps more ordinary, but will have a major impact in our work.
The group scheduled the meeting in Brussels to get a sense of the European Union’s impact on the Society of Jesus. There are a few pastoral works in which Jesuits serve the small army of officials who man the vast bureaucracy of the European parliament, council and commission. People kept explaining those elements of the central government to me, but it is a bit hard for my American head to grasp this method of doing business. One thing that got my attention, though, was the passport an Austrian Jesuit showed me. Right after the official seal were the words, “European Union” and then on the second line came “Republic of Austria.” That brought home to me the fact that Europe is moving closer to being one country than just a collection of allies. French, Spanish, Italian—those identities are no longer paramount. Brussels has a role much like Washington, D.C. Even the Mass we went to on Saturday at the Jesuit center was celebrated in four languages (French, English, Polish and Italian). The chapel was not fancy, but the faith and friendship were evident.
Most recent posts
Wednesday in Tuscany... [Aug 18]
In the footsteps of St. Ignatius... [Jun 9]
A time for retreat... [May 23]
Clear skies and new ideas... [Apr 29]
Happy birthday, Rome... [Apr 20]
Dreaming about change... [Apr 6]
Dancing with Devils... [Mar 26]
On vacation in Sicily... [Mar 19]
The first quiet morning... [Mar 7]
Pope Benedict’s Blessing... [Feb 21]
Fat Tuesday on a Diet... [Feb 5]
A steady rhythm for the congregation... [Jan 30]
Gratitude for good leadership... [Jan 21]
Respecting a grand tradition... [Jan 17]
Searching for a metaphor... [Dec 30]
Sunny days, but not many left... [Dec 16]