Together in the World

All human beings are connected—every one of us, from the saint to the terrorist, from the billionaire to the family living in a refugee camp. When untainted by the infinite distortions we humans apply in their name, our religions remind us of our bonds to one another. We share responsibility for the wellbeing of all those with whom our lives intersect, directly and indirectly. Little that we do is without consequence for others.

All creation, in fact, vibrates in harmony, and when a nightingale sings in Rome, the effect is felt in every heart, wherever we may be. While the influence of our thoughts and actions is strongest on those closest to us physically or on those closest to us emotionally and spiritually, we humans cannot help but touch one another.

We are tangibly connected, much as the starlings in an enormous flock are connected and know simultaneously when to change direction. Evidence of our literal ties is available if we don’t close our minds to the possibility. It’s not unusual for close friends and relatives to experience telepathy, with one voicing what the other has just been thinking. When someone rises to speak and breaks the silence of a Quaker Meeting for Worship, the ministry will frequently prove to be on the same subject that other individuals have been pondering silently. A person we have not heard from recently may suddenly come to mind, not long before he or she calls us unexpectedly. Entering a new place or meeting someone new, we may sense the positive or negative qualities of the surrounding energy or aura. Sometimes a dream or an image appearing during meditation will reveal something happening or soon to happen to a loved one or even to strangers.

In March 2011, on the night of the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, my mother and I were restless and couldn’t sleep; were we sensing the turmoil and suffering on the other side of the Earth even before we heard the news? On the way to work on the morning of September 11, 2001, I felt upset for no clear reason, so much so that I almost turned around and went back home. In the office that morning, I couldn’t concentrate and found myself crying. I tried meditating but, in my mind’s eye, kept seeing a bicycle and car colliding; perhaps that is how my mind translated the morning’s reality into its own imagery. In the scene, I attempted to separate the bicycle and car, but they collided again, and then again. I gave up meditating and turned to the Internet, where I learned about the attacks. The Twin Towers had already collapsed.

Given the intertwining of our lives, how can we do better by our fellow human beings, locally and around the world? First we can recognize that what we do locally can have repercussions globally, much as a wave travels across the ocean. With this knowledge, we can do our best to love. And what is love? Love is valuing one another—all others. Love is seeing that of God in all people, even if their Inner Light is buried under hatred and evil acts. Love is respecting the Earth, whose bounty human beings have diminished through selfishness, ignorance, and neglect. Love is wanting the best for every human soul—not the biggest car, house, and salary but the best in individual growth and the expression of that soul’s unique excellence and experiences. Love is seeing that each individual is a part of the whole and, as the poet John Donne said, one person’s loss diminishes us all.

Love complements direct intervention on behalf of those who suffer. We must individually and in partnership feed the hungry, nurture the lonely, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. But if we are not in a position to assist directly to feed, clothe, comfort, and heal, we are nevertheless helping the whole world if we practice kindness and love others genuinely and fully, if we speak up for what is right, encourage through the means available to us, lend a hand whenever we can, and find a way to do our work—whether in the home or through paid employment—in such a way that we lighten life’s spiritual and mental burdens for our loved ones and colleagues and give to society through our efforts.

The contribution does not need to feel profound, but it does need to be on the beneficial side of the ledger. If we are manufacturing weapons, why are we doing so? If our business is poisoning the land, why are we in this business? Perhaps we are, in fact, making a contribution to humankind, but we must be able to articulate it and not be kidding ourselves. It is not that all workers in less-than-exciting jobs should rush to the want ads to find more obviously meaningful employment. Instead, in most cases, we can find and develop the potential to serve within the job we have. If our work is harmful to ourselves and others, we must leave it as soon as we can without genuine risk to ourselves and our loved ones depending on us for their care and support. In our avocations, if we write, sing, paint, act, coach sports, teach literacy classes, run community fundraisers, host a book group, knit, garden—wherever our talents and interests take us without harming ourselves or others—we are exercising God’s gift of these talents and interests, and we can serve others and spread love and encouragement through them.

If you love and I love and we reach those around us so that their love grows and is shared, we will change the world. Love is shared in many ways—writing a poem, encouraging a friend, speaking up kindly but firmly in the face of unkindness and injustice, refusing to go along with behavior and attitudes that harm, building a soup kitchen, teaching children to read, creating music and art. All of these can be an expression of love if they are done with a reverence for and full sense of the unity of humanity and creation. Each of these can help to change the world. We change the world through our way of being, as well as our way of doing. Love is the answer, whatever form it takes.

Because we are connected directly and indirectly, love will spread when we love and show love. In turn, those we touch may love more deeply and therefore spread greater love. And with a thousand who love and then a million, and with all those who are touched in turn, love can become a mighty force, catching fire around the world like smoldering kindling in a hot wind, like a beneficial virus spread from person to person, from traveler to traveler, until a worldwide epidemic is declared. This is the way the human race will move forward. Those who love also seek and find a way to help those around them, to cooperate for the common good, to overcome poverty, to move past corrupt governments and past the forces of Nature that we humans have corrupted through our actions and choices.

Another way we can help those near and far is to be informed. We can learn, for instance, how the gems and the gold in our jewelry were mined. Were the conditions safe, the pay fair, and the mines free from child labor? Who picked the coffee beans and cocoa beans for our beverages and sweets, and how are these workers treated? Who sewed the seams in our clothes; who lost work and who gained work as a result, and what were the situations for all concerned?

And how are others living their lives? In my comfortable home and with my ample food and safe environment, can I rightly ignore the poverty, hunger, and other threats that at this moment endanger millions of children and adults? The last time I was in Philadelphia on a cold winter day, a homeless man was sleeping on a grate to try to capture a little bit of warmth. Can I justifiably ignore him as I settle in under my warm covers? And can I ignore the child whose parents sold her into subjugation because they could not afford to raise her? What about the families fleeing genocide and those whose lives are devastated by wars and other violence? Whether they live next door or across the globe, these are our neighbors. These men, women, and children are an extension of ourselves, as we are of them.

Too much suffering elicits only backs turned and perhaps a few prayers of thanksgiving that the plight of so many strangers is not our own. But the suffering of the man, woman, or child halfway around the world is our own suffering, too, and when we ignore him or her, we ignore part of ourselves. And so it is with the angry men and women who harm their neighbors or those perceived to be the enemy. That anger is our anger, and we must learn to quench our own if we are to stem the flow of hatred and violence in the world. Lasting change will come one person at a time, and another, and another, and another.

The message is not to lie down and let the winds of hatred or war flatten us and others around us as a tornado pulls out trees by their roots so they cannot recover. But self-defense must never drift over the line into offense, and self-defense must increasingly be without weapons and any trappings of war. If a people—if the world’s people—can learn truly to cooperate with one another, rather than competing in a mad rush for power and success however they are defined, humankind will be able to stanch evil even before it gains a foothold because we will deny those who practice it the following they need to advance. And as we act, we will act out of love, caring, and concern, knowing our own hate and revenge feed that of others.

So many ways of being are possible. There is not one right way but are infinite right ways along the path of caring and kindness. Each such way amplifies love in the world, helping to spread it where it might not have gone before. From here on throughout our years, let each of us light the lamp and show the way according to our map and journey.

Namaste

What Do You Love to Do?

“Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.” —Natalie Goldberg

What do you especially love to do? To share a list of the activities that give you joy is to allow a glimpse into the essence of who you are.

In this era of vast, worldwide suffering from the coronavirus, of quarantines and social distancing, some of the things we love to do must be modified. But those of us still blessed to have health for ourselves and our loved ones can remember the joys of past times, dream of joys to come, and recognize the joys still open to us, even now.

Here is some of what I love. A number of these pleasures still offer themselves to me in full measure. And all of them are possible in some version, from reading about favorite cities to attending choir practice on Zoom. My list is probably not interesting to you in itself. I hope, though, that my loves will remind you of your own, perhaps inspiring you to give them renewed places of honor in your life.

  1. Encouraging others, especially about their writing
  2. Being—simply being—with a close friend, whatever we’re doing, and working on shared projects
  3. Listening to music that reaches my soul
  4. Shopping at health-food stores
  5. Interacting with other people out and about town or in my community
  6. Writing a poem and sharing it with others
  7. Meditating inside quaint or magnificent churches
  8. Seeing art in places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Uffizi Gallery, or the Louvre or in the piazzas and churches of Rome
  9. Walking through towns and cities—especially Rome or other Italian cities and towns, Paris, New York, London, or Montreal—up one street and down another, catching glimpses of daily life and imagining how life is for the people whose activities and homes I glimpse
  10. Sitting in a café and writing in my journal, reading, and soaking up the atmosphere
  11. Reading about how other people have handled life’s challenges
  12. Finding a poem that captures what I’ve felt or would like to have said
  13. Watching wildlife of all kinds
  14. Browsing and shopping in bookstores
  15. Listening to audiobooks
  16. Learning languages and reading in French or Italian
  17. Taking and teaching classes
  18. Reading about and discussing spiritual philosophy
  19. Making schedules
  20. Traveling by train and seeing the changing scenery
  21. Attending the opera
  22. Reading novels whose characters captivate me
  23. Beading
  24. Connecting with loved ones on the other side
  25. Making a fresh start
  26. Getting outside early on a fine spring or summer morning, or taking a walk at dusk
  27. Expressing myself about strongly held opinions
  28. Making music and singing with others
  29. Dancing with a partner who dances well, or expressing myself through dance
  30. Handling challenges successfully
  31. Experiencing unspoiled Nature
  32. Looking at catalogs, especially when I could do this with my mother
  33. Hugging loved ones
  34. Translating interesting literature or articles from Italian to English
  35. Writing up an experience so that it comes alive for someone else
  36. Rearranging furniture and organizing my books and other belongings
  37. Looking at the stars on a clear night, especially when I could do this with my father, or bathing in moonlight
  38. Going to a good movie
  39. Eating with a friend at an interesting restaurant
  40. Attending retreats and Masses with my best friend and the Sisters of St. Francis

Still Becoming

Since long before I was old enough to be called a woman, I have wondered, worried, explored, analyzed, psychoanalyzed, reformed, self-chastened and chastised, groveled, and agonized about the kind of woman I am, should be, need to be, want to be.  These journeys into the deepest caves of my being, these self-forced marches through the stalactites and stalagmites of my spirit, have taken place on paper, in my dreams, in my insomnia, in my conversations with myself and those with whom I share affection.  And these journeys have gone on, and on, and on, leading me to travel one way and then another, circling back, losing myself in the dark forest of perfectionism and seeking approval, binding me with the crawling, clinging, choking vines of trying to be the girl and woman I have thought others expect me to be and I expect myself to be.  I swing, unable to reach the ground, caught, nearly unable to breathe, held fast by the terror of not measuring up.

And so I am sick unto revulsion of writing about the kind of woman I have been and find myself to be.

Okay, on the Enneagram I am a Type 2, one who loves to serve but too often flips over into serving in order to be accepted.  I am old according to most but don’t feel or act old.  I don’t even always act or feel grown.  I am proud of my degrees but feel less than those who have more degrees than I; I still think of earning a doctorate, but the goal is only partly from my love of learning.  I am single—I detest the word “spinster” because of the connotations it carries, but yet I’m known to apply these connotations to myself.  I am adventurous.  I do love learning—so much so that I expect my heaven to include universities.  I love intensely those closest to my heart.  I am still trying to figure out my purpose.  I have, including recently, been called Goodie Two Shoes, but I am meek and goodie only until I’ve absolutely had enough, and the time lapse between goodie and harpy varies.

Do you know who I really want to be?  I want to be a woman who is exactly as God intends for her to be—herself, foibles and all, and with a determination to work each day toward being herself in the best sense.  And that, of course, includes at the center finding out how she can, as herself and not merely as she wants and thinks she ought to be, be useful to others and honor her parents and creation, of which she can right this minute stop being ashamed of the part she is taking in its being and becoming.

Music, You . . .

You rekindle the light in me,
The true in me,
The one who joins all peoples of the world
In harmonies and counterpoints
To their rhythms,
Their keys and intonations,
Their passages pianissimi o veloci e fortissimi.

With you,
I am one whose consciousness expands
Beyond the seemingly solid walls of her apartment
To embrace the musicians,
The other lovers of these melodies,
These instruments and voices,
The composers
Alive or long since gone beyond.

You make me sing—
I love to sing,
And I remember playing guitars
That summer of ‘69 at the university;
One boy called his guitar Adele—
I don’t now know the boy’s name
And never saw him again,
But I recall playing Bob Dylan with him
And his Dylan-esque ways,
And I played for the adored Rick:
“No, I never got over those blue eyes.”

You ask me to remember
The creaky floors of Tower Records on South Street,
Of singing along with Pav and thinking of my love,
Of later, at Essene Natural Foods,
Singing along—more Dylan—
“But I was so much older then,”
And by then I had understood
The wisdom of growing younger as we age.

You ask me to spruce up my hair
For Zoom-on-Sunday choir practice;
The best is singing in the pews,
Floating on the alto and tenor harmonies,
The bass foundation,
The soaring descant—
I am a soprano, though I do not vocally soar,
Only inside,
But even so, my meager high notes thrill me.

You ignite the dancer in me,
And that I am,
Tap, line dancing:
Move your body and be whole
;
Once I ice skated to Galway playing Pachelbel’s Canon
And when I listen to the Canon,
I skate in my mind;
My closing spin is more secure.

With you,
I gather again
With my dearest ones who have stepped away;
We take our seats at the symphony, the opera,
And sing around the piano,
“Let the Sunshine In.”

You light my spirit
To embrace its creativity,
Remind me
Gray skies are beautiful,
I am not confined,
I am not old, just me,
It is not too late,
can still create,
Be,
Be a part of everything,
Am a part of everything,
Everyone,
All that is,
Even in virus time.

La musica è la lingua madre del mio cuore.

______________________

Notes:
“No, I never got over those blue eyes,” from “I Still Miss Someone,” by Johnny Cash and Roy Cash, Jr.
“But I was so much older then,” from “My Back Pages,” by Bob Dylan.
“Let the Sunshine In,” words by Ada J. Blenkhorn.

Living and Adapting in Virus Time

Ours is an era that will live on through the history books, and perhaps through enduring transformations for humanity.  And right now, ours is a time of erupting change, much more for many than for me, although I feel my ground shaking, too.

My mother performing in our community theater when she was 92

I live in a large retirement community, a place that has been my home since my 62nd birthday, the age of eligibility, when I moved in to be with my mother, Doris.  We had two-and-a-half blessed years together in our little apartment, where I have remained.  Because I am healthy and active, I might not have moved to the community if my mother had not already been here, but I would not give up a second of the time Mother and I had together, and I do not consider moving now.  Here I have found a community of dear friends, including a friend whom I consider my sister-friend because we are kindred spirits.  Other than distant cousins I haven’t met, my living relatives are eight cousins who live hundreds of miles away.  But here where I live, I have the gift of a sense of family and community, both of which have always been profoundly important to me.

Following the Pennsylvania governor’s guidelines, we in our community had been asked a couple of weeks ago to avoid leaving the campus and to stay six feet apart from one another.  Seeing some wiggle room there, my sister-friend and I were getting together late each afternoon to eat our dinner together, read things that inspire us, share our thoughts and feelings, and watch the news.  We sat six-feet apart in my friend’s apartment, which is considerably larger than mine, and I wore vinyl gloves if I used her computer.

This past Saturday evening, March 28, my friend and I had finished eating and were listening to music on the television when a robocall came in to let everyone know that beginning the next day, Sunday, we needed to stay inside our own apartments for two weeks, at least.  I cried a little, knowing that life was changing even more than it had already and that I would be missing seeing my friend.  I had known in the back of my mind that becoming quarantined was probably inevitable, but meeting the reality was a little daunting.

Pisa, Italy, when residents and tourists could wander freely

But now I have a better sense of what people in countries such as Italy, Spain, and China have faced and are facing, and how it is for New Yorkers.  At the same time, I realize that I am profoundly blessed.  We’ve had one case of the virus in our community, but my friends and I are well, as are my cousins in the South.  I am active—able to jump around in front of the TV to get my exercise—have lots of interests, and best of all, can talk by phone with my friends nearby and in distant points.  Facebook helps me to feel connected with my international friends, including the several living in Italy.

But even in our community, where the employees are delivering meals, helping folks figure out how to walk their dogs, planning to deliver mail, even willing to drop off a needed roll of toilet paper, some of the residents are less able than I am to deal with the challenges.  Our community director and medical director hold regular call-in shows on our closed-circuit television station, and on Sunday, the first day of the quarantine, a woman called in who was clearly having a full-blown anxiety attack.  And again, all of us here are the fortunate ones compared to what so many are suffering.

After the worst of the coronavirus has passed, what will remain of the changes we are making now to try to rid the world of the virus?  Will we continue to be kinder and more helpful to one another, more grateful for all we have and to those who risk their own wellbeing to serve, more attentive to the needs of the Earth and Nature?  To what extent will we return to so-called normal?  Whatever the answers to these questions, I will mark this past Saturday night, March 28, 2020, as the night I fully became part, in my small way, of the world’s shared efforts to stop COVID-19.

My father when he was about seven, with his dog, Jerry

And Saturday, March 28, 2020, would have been my father’s 100th birthday.  On March 11, the second-to-last day that I was out and about, I attended a one-day retreat at the nearby Franciscan Spiritual Center with my sister-friend.  The retreat included time for silent meditation.  During the first quiet time, I clearly saw in my mind my parents reaching out to me in love.  I believe they were expressing their understanding of what the world was facing and of the experiences about to reach my friends, neighbors, and me.  They were saying, I think, “We are with you.”  I believe they are.  And I believe that all human beings have love reaching out to them from the other side.  I wish that everyone could also know the sense of love and comfort that I am blessed to find inside my everyday life.

Beethoven in Virus Time

Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, by Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

The Philadelphia Orchestra,
Broadcasting on television,
Is playing Beethoven’s Symphonies No. 5 and No. 6
In an otherwise empty Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall—
Empty, without an audience,
Because of the virus that has changed the world
In weeks, days.
Right behind the orchestra are the empty seats
Mother, Daddy, and I held as our season tickets.

Beethoven, Daddy’s favorite.
As I listen, my emotions rise, fortissimo,
Chords of pain,
Waves of feeling riding waves of magnificent sound
Carrying a magnificent, hard-to-believe-it-ever-was past.

When I was a little girl,
Daddy played a recording of Beethoven’s 6th for me,
Narrating the story told
As the symphony’s movements unfold.

I feel and see moving toward me in silent procession,
Now crowding together in their joyous,
Suffocatingly sad throng,
My life’s vast gifts of miraculous memories.

The Evolution of an Ideal Day

The view from my favorite restaurant in Montreal

One morning when I had escaped from Plattsburgh, New York, and the job I loved at the college I detested, I sat in a Montreal natural-foods restaurant and wrote a poem about my ideal day.  The poem—now more than twenty-five years in the past and long misplaced—explained that I would write all morning in my city (ideally Montreal) apartment.  Then at noon I would meet a man of my heart, also a writer, for a long lunch at the restaurant where I was composing my poem.  The man and I would share what we had written that morning.  And then we would return to our solitary writing.  Perhaps the man and I would meet again in the evening—my poem didn’t explain.  Whether with the man, with another friend, or alone, I would no doubt choose to spend nearly every evening at the opera, concert hall, or theater.  But certainly the man and I would repeat, over and over, our mornings of solitary writing and our sharing over lunch.  We would each be glad for what we, ourselves, had written and fully fascinated by the work of the other.

I love Montreal—and New York City, Paris, Rome, and other captivating cities—and a day such as my poem described continues to retain its full measure of appeal.  But the years have spun on and I am living now in a large retirement community outside of Philadelphia.  No one gets to my age without loss, and I have known and know intense loss.  But I am also finding years full of ideal days—ideal, of course, within the frame of life as it now presents itself.

Ideal for me comes in a variety of guises.  I love my courses, taken and taught, at the University of Delaware’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  I have more than once, at the end of a full day of classes, said aloud, “I loved, loved, loved today!”  I likewise love my church choir and my activities in our community: billiards, a writers’ group, tap dancing and line dancing, an annual musical.  Above all, I love the people with whom I share these activities.  And I thrive at the nearby Franciscan Spiritual Center; the Franciscan sisters fully live their spirituality.  They’re as radical as I am—but a lot better at putting their beliefs into practice by serving the world community.

Now in this time of the coronavirus, all my classes and group activities have been suspended.  But I am still finding beautiful days because I still have the joy of one of God’s profound blessings in my life: my best friend in this world, my sister of the soul though not of blood.  Every evening, I pack something for supper and walk over to my friend’s apartment within the community where we are living.  Her apartment is larger than mine, so at her place, we are able to do our social distancing—six feet apart—and yet visit and share our reading and wrestling with its meanings; our experiences, thoughts, and emotions; laughter; the devastating news; and the pleasure of each other’s company.  And each evening, my friend and I share with each other what we have written during the day.

Coronavirus

The virus is devouring the planet
For us who took meandering,
Nearly at will,
As the way our world spun;
We who are blessed
With generous measures
Of strength and possibilities
Wandered our neighborhoods
And far beyond
As means allowed
And inclination prompted.

But now a trip to choir practice
Is an act of courage, daring,
Perhaps irresponsibility,
Endangering others,
Harming those I love.

How could a time,
Decades, have been
When for us—
The blessed ones
Not living, or enduring,
In famine, poverty, infirmity,
Subjugation, or war—
Only time and budget impeded
Our exploring the globe?

And now we avoid trains and planes,
Restaurants and theaters,
Gatherings at church and school,
And touching one another.

Throughout the eons,
Lives have been transformed,
Darkened or destroyed;
We feared Earth’s annihilation
By inundation or asteroid,
But our present world and ways
Are trampled by a microbe
Unheard of when the old year
Stepped away a season ago,
Ceding time and space
To a new decade holding hope
Now dying,
But seeking resurrection.

Going to Church as the Romans Do

Entering a church in Rome, I step out of time into stillness and peace between moments of ordinary life.  A few tourists pause in front of the frescoes.  Someone puts coins in a slot to illuminate the apse for photographs, and then the light is dusk again.  Romans from the neighborhood pray silently in the pews.  A priest is busy at the altar with some preparation.  Time stays suspended until I step back out into the street.

St. Peter’s Square/Piazza San Pietro, by I, Dfmalan, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

The first Swiss Guards my friend Dora and I saw stood in their costumes in front of the gate to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica.  We had just entered Piazza San Pietro through the middle of the embracing colonnade, and I was feeling unequal to branding into my memory the details of the piazza, Bernini’s colossal columns, and the basilica itself.  In guidebooks, the scene looked untouchable and remote.  In life, the scope, flamboyance, and magnificence were just as extreme, but when I was standing inside the scene, it also felt welcoming.

Within the Basilica di San Pietro, with its shimmering splendor, I found a living church, not merely a museum, in spite of the treasures.  I was a Quaker then, not yet a Catholic, but I’d always felt at home in a Catholic church.  I felt so even there in St. Peter’s, the grandest in the world.  Perhaps a reason was that Catholicism had woven through my life.  For a time in college, I had played the guitar for the local folk Mass—that was the late 1960s.  I remember strumming along as we sang, “And we’ll sing a song of love / Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleluia.”[1]  I’d studied medieval Church history fairly extensively in college and had later dated a former priest for a few months.

After Dora and I entered St. Peter’s, Michelangelo’s Pietà was just to our right; Bernini’s swirlingly ornate ninety-foot altar canopy, the Baldacchino (Balachin), was straight ahead.  Bernini remains one of my favorite sculptors because his captivating, often graceful saints, angels, and other figures have strong personalities.  Restraint was not Bernini’s watchword.

Interior of the Basilica di San Pietro/St. Peter’s Basilica, by I, Jean-Christophe BENOIST, CC BY 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons

I couldn’t absorb more than a little of the rich vision the basilica offered, and so I did such things as look up into Michelangelo’s dome; stare at Bernini’s Monumento a papa Alessandro VII, with its skeleton hand holding up an hourglass from under marble draperies; touch both of St. Peter’s feet, not just the right one as was expected; meditate by the tomb of Pope John XXIII; and sooth my sense of inadequacy in grasping it all by resolving to come back many times over the years.

Our map showed the Vatican Museums (the plural is correct) to be located right next to the basilica, and they were, but the entrance was a ten-minute walk around the Vatican walls, past the wagons selling souvenirs and bibite (soft drinks).  Because it was by then about two o’clock, to enter the museums, we didn’t have to wait in a line like the two-blocks-long throng we passed one morning later in the week.  It had drizzled a little as we’d left St. Peter’s, but the only real rain fell while we were inside the museums, climbing up and down stairs, walking from room to room, from masterpiece to masterpiece.

Visiting the Vatican Museums was a succession of, “Wow, this is here!” and “I wish I could assimilate all these wonderful things”: the Hellenistic Period sculpture Laocoön and His Sons, a Roman emperor’s mosaics and stone bowl the size of a small swimming pool, Raphael’s School of Athens, and the grand prize at the end, the Sistine Chapel.  I thought, “Popes are chosen in this room.  Michelangelo himself painted these scenes.  Now I’m standing here.  I’m numbed by the responsibility.”  I willed myself to see, really to see, the images I had looked at so many times in reproductions—above all, God giving life to Adam and the Delphic Sibyl, my favorite.  From time to time, an official hissed, “Ssh!” to the milling crowd.

Vatican Museums spiral staircase, by © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

We reached the bottom of the museums’ dramatic, wide spiral staircase and stopped into a small snack bar to rest and drink mineral water.  Dora was ready to return for a nap in the convent guest room where we were staying, and I set off for Castel Sant’Angelo.  Loving opera as well as churches, I wanted to see the setting for Puccini’s Tosca.

Castel Sant’Angelo with the dome of St. Peter’s visible to the left

The next day, after exploring the Pantheon—where I felt the stones hadn’t yet absorbed the overlay of Christianity—we were ready to find the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.  This church is almost adjacent to the back of the Pantheon, but we took a circuitous route down the wrong street and around the block, so that I decided to ask directions from a woman of perhaps sixty who was talking with two men.  I liked her appearance and manner, which were typical of the self-confident, friendly, and efficient middle-aged and older Roman women I saw throughout the week—the kind of woman I want to be.

Following the woman’s instructions, we walked around another corner and were then in front of Bernini’s statue of an elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back.  I love elephants for their wisdom and personality, as Bernini apparently did, too, and I had admired pictures of this statue.  So rounding the corner was one of my many gratifying Roman moments of desire opening up into reality.

Bernini’s elephant with Santa Maria sopra Minerva behind

There behind the elephant was Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with its plain exterior that leads into interior color and light—Gothic, but with its own Roman character, so that the church is not just a small transplanted cathedral from the North.  Santa Maria sopra Minerva is beautiful, with its celestial blue-and-gold vaulted ceiling.  At one time, a Roman temple to Minerva was on the site—hence sopra Minerva, meaning above Minerva—and when I sat in that church, I was with those ancient Romans, as well as with centuries of Christians.  The great religious buildings of the world reach across time.

Interior of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, by Livioandronico2013 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Every church I visited in Rome was filled with works of profound beauty inspired by the artists’ devotion.  I could not hold information about all of the art in my mind.  Because of the vast magnificence, I could barely even see each fresco and statue clearly and consciously.  All I could do was store the most outstanding impressions, buy books for later study from the small gift shops, and carry with me the feelings I found in the air as I sat and walked in each church, absorbing its aura formed by the centuries.

I had seen pictures of the inside of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and Andrea Bocelli’s Aria video was filmed there, so I wanted to wander through the basilica, turning pictures into experience.  There was Michelangelo’s sculpture The Risen Christ, and I found St. Catherine of Siena, co-patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis), interred beneath the altar—but without her head, which is in Siena.  Wandering beyond the altar to the left, I came across the tomb of the 15th century painter Fra Angelico, important to me because my father and I took an art-appreciation course together when I was a senior in high school, and I first heard about Fra Angelico then.

When I joined her, Dora was sitting in front of the Cappella di San Dominico, also to the left of the altar, and meditating on a statue of the Madonna with three children—Jesus and two St. Johns.  Dora had lighted a candle, and I lighted one, too, for the people meaning the most to me.  I wish it had not been the only candle I lighted in Rome, because a prayer for the wellbeing of another is not an empty gesture.

The churches of Rome carry a sense of permanence and meaningful tradition.  Traditions have the potential either to support or to bind, depending both on the traditions themselves and on the way they are used or misused.  Some are excuses for continuing injustices—for example, the traditions that subjugate women and those in whose name violence is committed.  Other traditions, the kind that deserve nurturing, link us to other people without pushing away or diminishing those who do not share our traditions.

By the time I visited Rome, I was not finding a sense of permanence and tradition in my own spiritual experience.  While I thought my religious views meant I would not make a good Catholic, I felt more spiritual satisfaction from sitting in a hundreds-of-years-old Catholic basilica than I did from meditating in my own Quaker meetinghouse, where, by then, all but the barest traditions seemed to be kept assiduously scraped away.

Meetinghouse window, sketch by Mason Hayek

When I was a little girl, vibrant Quaker traditions were maintained and nurtured, and in those days the Meeting felt welcoming and so comforted my parents and me as a place where we belonged.  Then we were a part of something worthwhile that had been built up over time, even though Quakerism’s centuries are many fewer than those of Catholicism.

For the first few years after my parents and I joined Friends Meeting,[2] when I was five, every Sunday morning before meeting for worship, a lively woman played the piano for us children to sing songs and hymns.  I loved to sing.  Then for many years, after meeting, adults and children sang together, always ending with the same hymn:

As we leave this friendly place,
Love gives light to every face;
May the kindness which we learn,
Light our hearts till we return.”[3]

Meeting was a friendly place, with older Quakers who still used “thee” and “thou” and were looked up to and respected for their ministry, with younger adults who took an active role in the life of the Meeting, and with children of all ages.  At Christmastime, we children decorated a mitten tree for needy people, acted out the Nativity story, and made gifts to sell at the Meeting’s annual fair.

By the time I visited Rome, nobody sang hymns in the meetinghouse anymore, most of the “weighty Friends” were gone, and those of us who were left sat scattered around the meetingroom on Sunday morning, often, it felt to me, without much intimacy and shared spiritual energy.

Vatican at dusk

When I was in Italy, I wasn’t yet ready to turn Catholic, but I did want to take my Quaker heart into St. Peter’s and Santa Maria sopra Minerva and the other churches I especially loved in Rome—Santa Maria in Trastevere, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Santa Maria della Vittoria—gaze at the art that appealed to me and up into the ornate ceilings, and think about all the people of the world to whom I was linked through this art and architecture: those who created it and those whom it has helped to make their way in the world and understand life’s mysteries.


[1] James Thiem, “Sons of God.”

[2] Quakers are more formally known as Friends, as members of the Religious Society of Friends.

[3] Vincent B. Silliman, “As We Leave This Friendly Place,” 1935.

Magic Carpet

The shades-of-blue oriental rug
Now in a church classroom,
The classroom where our choir practices,
Is, I feel, I sense with my spirit’s eye
As well as my eyes for physical sight,
The rug that for all the decades
After the braided rug of my childhood
Covered our den floor at home,
The room in our little white house
Where my mother and father and I
Shared dinners on our card table,
Night after night,
When I visited from other states,
When I lived back home again,
Home where I still remain
In my heart.

Just before the house was sold,
The rug was sold
And seems to have found its way
To the room where the choir I love
Sings melodies and harmonies
For the church that is now
My spiritual home.

Living on our rug at Christmas,
We three hung stockings on our fireplace,
No matter our ages,
The fireplace
With blue-and-white tiles in the red-brick hearth,
With Daddy’s mother’s painting above the mantel—
The painting hangs in my bedroom now.

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We rested our feet
On the pretty rug
As Mother sat facing the fireplace,
With Daddy across from her,
And I in between,
And after our Quaker-silence grace,
We shared our days,
Analyzed our dreams,
And one Friday night
Ate our last meal together.

On the rug’s patterned loveliness,
We read,
Wrote letters and journals,
Sang songs at the piano:
“Let the Sunshine In”
And “The Church in the Wildwood.”

On the blue-hued rug,
I was not always happy,
Often not the way I wish to have been,
Kind and serene,
But inviolate love
Lived always in that room.

At choir practice
I stare at the rug,
Searching for evidence
Of the years
It decorated and cushioned our lives,
Giving us its beauty;
Though tangible signs elude me,
I know
Because I feel our love
Still held in the fibers of the carpet.

Perhaps I am mistaken:
Maybe our family rug
And the rug in our church classroom
Are not the same;
Even if such is truth,
The carpet
I visit weekly in choir practice,
The rug offering ringing memories,
Speaks to me saying
My journey on into the years
Continues warmed and made beautiful
Through love unchanged by loss and time.