January 2, 2015, Friday — Vespers in Manoppello

“He puts an end to wars over all the world: he tramples the bow, shatters weapons, and burns the shields with fire.”—Psalm 45 (46), chanted at Vespers this evening in Manoppello, Italy, and all over the world

In the Shadow of the Veil

I reached Manoppello today, on the second day of the new year. It is a tiny village in almost the very center of Italy, not far from Chieti, where Archbishop Bruno Forte is the bishop.

I am a guest of the Capuchin friars here for the next few days.

The friars are the custodians of an ancient veil which bears the mysterious image of a man with bruises on his face, as if he has been beaten. His eyes are open. The veil has been here for 400 years, between two panes of glass, in a small shrine built above the main altar of a church. Some say it is a drawing, and not a very good one, of the face of Jesus. But others note that there seems to be no trace of paint whatsoever on the fabric. So it would seem that it cannot be a drawing or a painting. But if it is not a drawing or painting, what is it?

Some believe it is a mystical image, and, in fact, the actual face of Jesus, created at the moment of the resurrection, on the piece of cloth that would have been placed on his face at his burial, perhaps by the hands of the Virgin Mary herself. For the cloth on which the image appears is made of byssus, a rare silk-like material made of the hair-like fibers which grow on mussel shells in the eastern Mediterranean, near Egypt and the Holy Land. And, in fact, this very precious cloth was used for the garments of the Pharaohs and the robes of the High Priests in Jerusalem…

This theory is supported by the fact that the measurements of the features on this face seem to match exactly the measureents of the features on the face of the Shroud of Turin. In other words, both cloths bear the image of the same man’s face, made in different ways, on different cloths… (And we believe that, in Jewish burial custom, there were several different cloths, of different sizes, used to cover a body being buried.)

But if this cloth bears the actual face of Christ, then it is the most precious relic in the entire world, of incomparable value. For, if it is real, in looking at it, we would be looking at the very face of Christ…

Father Carmine, the rector, meets me at the door of the convent.

I have to walk through about four inches of slushy snow to greet him.

Once inside, the church and monastery seem quite cold. I seem to see my breath in front of me as I walk.

I am given a simple, clean room at the end of a hall, looking out over the parking lot, behind the church.

“We will begin Vespers in a few minutes,” Father Carmine says to me. “Are you too tired to join us?”

“Not so tired that I will not join you,” I say.

“Good,” he says. “It will be better with four…”

We go down and stand in the area beneath and behind the Veil. I can just see it, in the dark, about 15 feet above me. But I cannot make out any feature whatsoever, in the gloom of evening, though I know what it looks like, as I have seen it several times before, on other visits.

Father Carmine hands me a cloth-bound volume of the Liturgia dell Ore and hastily moves the ribbons of different colors to show me where today’s readings are. I am confused, but there isn’t enough time to clarify. We must begin…

Everything is in Italian. I can understand it well enough, but do not yet fully realize that Father Carmine wants me to recite along with him.

There are two others, Father Vito and Father Crispin. Father Carmine begins alone, as I just read to myself, and the other two respond. Father Carmine continues, but motions to me with his hand to read along with him. I still do not quite get it, until he whispers, “Recite it along with me.”

So he and I read one verse, then the other two read the responses — just the four of us.

It is quite cold, the type of cold that creeps into the lungs and can make one cough. After a while, I cough, and have to collect my breath in order to keep speaking.

I am struck by the simplicity of it all, the humbleness…. three Capuchin friars of a middle age, one American writer, also middle-aged, on a search for the truth about what may be the most extraordinary relic in the world, the image of the face of a wounded man who may be… Jesus himself.

I cough intermittently, and mispronounce some of the words of the Psalms.

The four of us stand just below the Veil of the bruised man, a Veil which has been here for more than 400 years, and, some say, dates back all the way to Christ, 2,000 years ago.

And the words we are speaking, many of them, date back even further… 3,000 years… to King David himself. For we are reciting David’s psalms…

The prayers of the office begin with an invocation: “O God, come to my assistance. O Lord, make haste to help me…”

Then the Psalms are recited, here and everywhere in the Catholic world where Vespers are prayed…

Would King David be offended that someone like myself, along with three old friars, would recite his poems, haltingly, in the cold of the Italian mountains in winter, 3,000 years after he wrote them? Would he feel honored? I hope the latter, I think to myself…

“Beato l’uomo che ha cura del debole,” Father Carmine intones. “Blessed is the man who cares for the weak.”

This is what Pope Francis has been preaching, I think to myself.

“Nel giorno della sventura, il Signore lo libera,” I say along with Carmine. “On the day of trouble, the Lord will free him.”

“Vegliera su di lui il Signore,” say Crispin and Vito. “The Lord will watch over him.”

Crispin is wearing a wool cap on his head. His beard is a tangle of grey. Vito’s beard is well-manicured and white as snow.

“Lo fara vivere beato sulla terra, non lo abbandonera alle brame dei nemici.” “He will cause him to live in blessedness on the earth, He will not abandon him to the plots of his enemies.”

This is like Pope Benedict now, I think — having survived “Vatileaks,” now living in the Vatican gardens, behind St. Peter’s Basilica, and in precisely these days receiving his brother, Father Georg Ratzinger, now 91, both of them living quietly and in prayer.

“I nemici mi augurano il male: ‘Quando morira e perira il suo nome?'” “My enemies wished me ill, saying: ‘When will he die? When will his name perish?'”

“Anche l’amico in cui confidavo, anche lui, che mangiava il mio pane, alza contro di me il suo calcagno.” “Even my dearest friend, in whom I put my trust, who had eaten my bread – even he trampled me down.”

“Ma tu, Signore, abbi pieta e sollevami, che io possa ripagare. Da questo sapro che tu mi ami, se non trionfa su di me il mio nemico…” “But you, Lord, have mercy on me, and revive me, so that I may pay them back. From this I will know that you love me, if my enemy does not triumph over me…”

The minutes pass, the psalms are recited, the cold creeps into my limbs.

“Come and see the works of the Lord, who has done wonders on the earth. He puts an end to wars over all the world: he tramples the bow, shatters weapons, and burns the shields with fire. Stop and see that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, exalted on the earth. The Lord of strength is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Would that it would be so, I think. Would that all the wars would be ended, from Nigeria to Ukraine, in all the corners of the world.

For peace is God’s gift to men.

A short reading is read, from Colossians 1:13-15: “God has taken us out of the power of darkness and created a place for us in the kingdom of the Son whom he loves, and in him, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins. He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation.”

He is the image of the unseen God, I think. So, those who say God is invisible, and cannot be depicted by men, are right.

But the Son… the image of the Son, the Son’s image… his face… may be depicted… And I glance up 15 feet to the dark shrine where the Veil rests between two plates of glass…

Then comes the short responsory:

The Word became flesh.
– The Word became flesh.
And he lived among us.
– The Word became flesh.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
– The Word became flesh.

This is it again, I think. The infinite becomes finite. The eternal enters time. The invisible becomes visible. The Father sends the Son… He becomes flesh…

And we recite, as is customary, the Magnificat — the words of the Virgin Mary, who bore her son in Bethlehem in this same season, 2,000 years ago.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord… Now all generations will call me blessed… His name is holy… He has put forth his strength: he has scattered the proud and conceited, torn princes from their thrones; but lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things; the rich he has sent away empty…”

The Vespers come to an end. Crispin is quickly away, for he has to bring the simmering food to dinner. Next to leave is Vito. Then Carmine and I walk to the refectory. “May I take the book with me to my room?” I ask, thinking I might use it to write something this evening. He nods.

We eat dinner mostly in silence. There are three types of potatoes: gnocchi in tomato sauce, potatoes boiled then sprinkled with olive oil, and roasted potatoes with fish. There is also a salad. I eat it without any dressing.

I come back to my room, turn on my computer — yes, there is internet here.

Then, within a few seconds, an icon opens on my screen, and a phone call ring fills my cell. It is a call coming in via Skype… from Moscow.

A friend in Russia is asking me whether I am “on” or not, to organize a global concert of Giuseppe Verdi’s magnificent Requiem (“Rest in peace”), to honor all the dead from World War II (when Russia, then called the Soviet Union, and the United States, were allies) on September 2 in Washington, D.C. (the war in the east ended on September 2, 1945, so it will be the 70th anniversary of that day on September 2).

“I am not sure,” I say. “There would be so much to do, so many complex factors of both a political and economic nature. I don’t know. Why don’t you give me a few days? I’m staying at a little shrine here, in the mountains, with only three friars. In Manoppello…”

“You are in the place where the image of Christ is,” my friend responds. “Then everything will be well.”

“Maybe,” I say. “And maybe not. Anyway, give me a few more days. I need some time alone. I can’t answer you now…”

(to be continued)

The Anthropological Question

“You live in a deranged age, more deranged than usual, because, in spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.” —Walker Percy (1916-1990), American Catholic convert and writer, author of The Message in the Bottle and Lost in the Cosmos

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