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Posted: March 28

An Easter story

I went outside on Easter morning to pray with my sketchbook. Just outside the door to the carport at the provincial`s residence in Quito was a lily growing next to a cactus. The lily is often associated with Easter, but I have no idea what the cactus might signify. I drew them both together anyway in pen and ink, concentrating on the beauty in front of me, aware of the One who gives all beauty. This year it happens that Easter coincides with the anniversary of my ordination as a priest, so I was doubly grateful in my prayer, both in the warm Ecuadorian sunshine and then a bit later at Mass in the Jesuit parish nearby where I concelebrated and gave thanks for the gift of being ordained to serve God´s people.

After Mass Fr. Rolando Calle took me to visit the “Capilla del Hombre”—an art museum dedicated to the work of Oswaldo Guayasamin, Ecuador´s most famous artist. He also designed the museum which sits on a hillside near where his studio was. From the outside the building appears modest-sized and solid, faced with roughly-cut native stones; inside it opens into one large room with a circular opening in the floor that reveals an even larger space on the floor below. The high walls give breathing space to the monumental paintings, mostly studies of Latin American people shown in their suffering. One can see the influence of Picasso´s Guernica, but Guayasamin has a distinctive palette of colors and an expressive style that stands on its own. We probably should have visited the museum on Good Friday, but the beauty of the art speaks of a hope that I identify with the Resurrection.

From the museum we drove across town and down into a nearby valley, somewhat lower than Quito at only 2,400 meters. Rolando´s sister, Maria Augusta, lives there in a charming old stone and wood-beam house filled with artificats that reveal the proud interest that she and her husband Juan take in their country. For the midday meal we ate “fanesca”—the traditional Ecuadorian meal made of 12 different grains individually cooked in milk and then brought together into a thick, rich stew. The dish comes from ancient roots in the culture of the Andean people who only ate it at the time of the spring equinox after three days during which they did not cook anything. It takes two days to prepare the dish since each grain has to be pinched open by hand before it can be cooked. Now fanesca is an Easter dish, bringing together both traditions that define Ecuador.

As we ate, Maria Augusta told stories. She said that she found Rome enchanting when she visited it not long after graduating from the university. At one point in her stay there, she was walking down a narrow street near the Trevi Fountain when she stopped at the window of a jewelry store to admire the riches within. Everything was beautiful, but one particular necklace caught her eye and she could not stop staring at it. Finally, the store`s owner invited her inside and asked her where she was from.

”Ecuador,” she replied; “Do you know where it is?”

”Oh, yes,” he said.

She explained that she was just looking and could not afford anything in the story, but he just asked her which piece of jewelry she liked.

”When I become a millionaire, I will come back and buy this necklace,” she said.

He invited her to try it on, but she refused, knowing that it was far beyond what she could afford and embarrassed even to be in the store. He insisted that she try it, and persisted until finally she gave in and put on not just the necklace but the matching earrings that went with it. Maria Augusta looked in a mirror and thought it looked perfect.

Then he told her that the necklace and earrings were hers, that she should just take them with her as his gift. He explained that he had been interred in a prison during the second world war because he was Jewish. When he was released from prison at the end of the war, he fled to Ecuador. For two years he could not work because of the psychic damage he suffered in prison, but he survived because of the goodness of people there who shared their food and helped him recover his health. Finally he felt good enough to return to Italy where he eventually opened his own jewelry store, where he met Maria Augusta.

The story of his gratitude and generosity is an Easter story—of rebirth, of remembering, of giving thanks.

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