January 3, 2015, Saturday — Conversation in Manoppello

“He healeth those that are broken in heart, and bindeth up their bruises.” —Psalm 146

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man in the vision of God.” —Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, c. 180 A.D.

“Our Lord Jesus Christ, through his transcendent love, became what we are, that he might bring us to be what he is himself.” —Ibid.

The image in Manoppello of the Holy Face, which is kept here, is on a very fine cloth between two plates of glass, and looks like this: a man with two bruises on his nose, his eyes open…
Today was a quiet day. Like Holy Saturday itself, the day of the silence of Christ, it was a day of reflection.

Breakfast was a bowl of hot milk with coffee, and a single cracker. Lunch was rice with mushrooms. Dinner included some eggplant Parmesan, and the leftover rice with mushrooms. After dinner, a hot tea with a piece of panettone, the special Italian cake for festivities, with small raisins in it.

Father Crispin was talkative. He spoke about visiting America, and about finding his own vocation there. And he had something interesting to say about US President Barack Obama.

“Obama was a student in a Capuchin school in Indonesia when he was a boy of 13,” Crispin said. “I spoke once with one of the friars who was one of his teachers, a Dutch friar. He told me that Obama was not a Muslim, but a Protestant, and a very intelligent student, at that time.”

I asked the friars what they think of the Russians, and the events of the last year in Ukraine.

“The Russians took over part of another country, Crimea,” said Father Vito. “They are an expansive power. But these sanctions against them have been terrible for Europe. Here is Italy we cannot sell our Parmesan cheese, and there are big wheels of it stacking up. And the Church there is so closely tied to the regime…”

“Hmmm,” I said…

I changed the conversation, and asked about the Holy Face.

“Have you done scientific tests on it?” I asked. “Have you taken it out of the glass to see what the material is, and to try to date it?”

“We are planning some tests, but we are moving cautiously,” Father Carmine said. “After all, technology develops so rapidly, we could make tests today which would be inconclusive, but if we wait, in a few years we may have instruments which can give us much more conclusive results. So we are cautious…”

“But has the image ever been taken out of the glass?” I asked.

“Twice,” Father Carmine said. “But it was a long time ago. Once, when it was opened, the cloth seemed to stick to one of the panes of glass, and the friar thought he might tear the fabric and destroy it if he continued, so he quickly closed it up again. A second time, years later, a friar opened it up, and the image disappeared entirely. So he closed it up again immediately, and the image reappeared. And it has stayed that way ever since, as you see it now…”

It was time again for Vespers. Again we met in the small choir behind and beneath the main altar of the church. This time I wore a woollen cap. It was quite chilly; the friars do not heat the church, due to cost.

And once again, I was struck, in the readings, by how our time is fused with the time of King David. Throughout the world, Catholics are reciting King David’s Psalms, every day, several times a day.

We, in our time, are the echoing voice of King David, down through the centuries, or part of that echoing voice…

“Your word is a lamp to guide my feet,
a light for my journey…

“Lord, accept the vows I make,
and teach me your judgements…

“Your decrees are my inheritance for ever,
they are the joy of my heart:
my heart is set on carrying them out,
for ever, until the end.”

And then, another Psalm:

“I will bless the Lord who gave me understanding;
even in the night my heart will teach me wisdom.
I will hold the Lord for ever in my sight:
with him at my side I can never be shaken.”

There was a reading from Philippians 2:

“Jesus Christ, although he shared God’s nature,
did not try to cling to his equality with God;
but emptied himself, took on the form of a slave,
and became like a man:
not in appearance only,
for he humbled himself by accepting death,
even death on a cross….”

These words took on special meaning for me, as I heard them while standing beneath the altar upon which is preserved the image depicted at the beginning of this email… and at the end, below…..

I had spent the entire day quietly.

When I returned to my room, and opened my computer, the Skype icon appeared and a call came in. Again, it was from Moscow.

“So, what do you think?” my caller said. “You asked for some time to think, and I promised to call you back. So here I am.”

“What are you thinking?” I returned.

“I am thinking that no one is very happy right now,” my caller said. “Russia is certainly not happy, with the ruble collapse and the price of oil cut in half, and the sanctions. But I don’t think the United States is very happy either, with Russia turning toward China. That can’t be seen as a good thing… There is clearly the danger of a direct confrontation, and that will not be good for anyone, especially the simple people of Ukraine, no matter who may win… We would like to try another way…”

“And so?” I asked.

“And so, just as in the past, so now. A concert. Something everytone can support, everyone with human feelings. Verdi’s Requiem. Invite both Putin and Obama, and Merkel, and representatives of the Jewish community… to commemorate all those who died in World War II, and to express the hope of never entering into another so destructive war.”

“And do you really think Putin would attend?” I asked.

“Putin would attend,” he said. “The question might be Obama…”

Around the monastery, an evening wind began to howl. I shook my head.

“I don’t know what to do,” I said. “It seems like such a small gesture, futile. The great powers are already moving, everything is gamed on supercomputers, and we can do nothing to stop the unfolding events…”

“On the contrary,” said my friend. “All it requires is a small act of faith. Do you believe enough to take one step?

“What step woud that be?” I asked…
(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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