Saturday, October 22, 2016

Italian Pilgrimage: Siena

Siena city wall that now surrounds a soccer field

Outside Sienna's City Wall

When we arrived in Siena our first stop was at The Basilica of San Domenico where St. Catherine of Siena's relics of her head and finger can be found.  I have to say that this was the only church in all of Italy that I was disappointed in.  Compared to all of the beautiful churches we had just seen in Assisi, it was very plain with modern windows that were from the 1980's.  Our guide explained that the church had been modernized to suit decorative tastes over the years and many of the frescoes were covered over with plain paint and the new windows replaced former windows that were damaged.  What a pity.  St. Catherine is such a powerful and amazing saint that her relics deserve to be stored in a magnificent setting. Despite the appearance of the church, it was extremely powerful to pray before the skull and finger of St. Catherine.  I asked her to pray for my daughter and I, and for all women, that we may model her strength and wisdom in seeking after the Lord.

The head of St. Catherine (source)

The finger of St. Catherine (source)
Here at the Basilica we discovered a beautiful display of small, framed hearts and other assorted objects and pictures.  We learned that these are called ex votos.  They represent a vow completed or a prayer answered.  In thanksgiving, the faithful would purchase an ex voto to leave at the church. These are similar to someone leaving crutches behind at a church if they were healed of an injury or the modern practice of donating money to the church in thanksgiving for answered prayers.  I  just couldn't get these ex votos out of my mind during the remainder of the pilgrimage!  I found them to be absolutely exquisite, and from the moment I saw them I looked for them in every gift shop we visited, but sadly, they were no where to be found.

ex votos

Following the Basilica of San Domenico we began a walking tour of the city which led us to the childhood home of St. Catherine.  If you visit this link and click on the pictures you will find some wonderful panoramic views of her home which is now a church.  When we left St. Catherine's childhood home we enjoyed a lovely walk through the charming streets of Siena to the Duomo.  I couldn't help but be impressed by the skill of the Sienese drivers as they navigated narrow, hilly, winding streets, turning blind corners and passing pedestrians with ease.  Such expertise I could never hope to have!

Just outside of St. Catherine's childhood home
The courtyard near St. Catherine's childhood home
The view of The Basilica of San Domenico from the courtyard
of St. Catherine's childhood home
Narrow streets with cars and pedestrians sharing the space
The following images show some of the charming scenes we found as we walked the streets of Siena.  It was hard to keep up with our group because I kept stopping to take pictures!  Although much larger and very different from Assisi in many ways, Siena was equal in its beauty.  And at the end of the journey through the streets we arrived at the Duomo which was such a beautiful church that I had to keep picking my chin up off the floor, I couldn't believe such beauty could be real!

The Cathedrale de Santa Maria, usually just referred to as the Duomo, was built during the 13th and 14th centuries and has been so well cared for that everything within it is absolutely perfect.  As I marveled at the amount of work that went into building this majestic work of art for the Lord, especially at a time when there wasn't the convenience of modern machinery, Bishop Hying furthered my astonishment when he told me that many of the people who worked on this church never lived to see its completion.  Can you imagine giving your whole life to working on something that you would never see in your lifetime?  What a gift! What great love!

The pictures below are just a small sampling of all of the photos I took.  Of course none of my pictures do the Duomo adequate justice.  It's one of those places you just have to see to truly appreciate.

Duomo exterior

Duomo exterior

Duomo exterior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

Duomo interior

The floor of the Duomo is usually covered to protect its delicate and beautiful inlaid marble mosaics, but we were fortunate to be visiting at one of the short times of year when we could view the mosaics uncovered.  It's absolutely amazing to think about the creativity and talent of the artists who created these masterpieces.  The mosaic below is the story of Fortune.  The nude woman is standing on a sphere and a boat to show the instablility of life.  Wisdom sits in the top and jewels and riches are being thrown away by Crates to show that the things of this world are not lasting.

The Story of Fortune
The worship space in the Duomo wasn't the only thing that was specatucular.  The Piccolomini Library, which is inside of the Duomo and houses a collection of music books, was absolutely astounding!  I couldn'tt believe that a church could have such an amazing library!  I wasn't sure how much more my senses could handle!

The ceiling of the library

The libray with a statue of The Three Graces in the center.

A music book in the library.

It was here at the Duomo that the most heart-racing experience of our pilgrimage happened to Paul and I.  Toward the end of the tour, our guide allowed us some quiet time for silent prayer in a side chapel. After kneeling in silent prayer for a short time, Paul and I stopped to light a candle.  When we were through we turned around and found that our entire group was gone!  We went outside and couldn't see anyone from our group among the hundreds of people walking about!  We didn't know where the next destination was so we couldn't even ask for help in finding it.  We were lost!  Because our group was so large, there were 80 people all together on our pilgrimage, we were divided into two groups-red and green.  As we stood outside the church wondering what to do we noticed some of the red group members moving toward the side chapel so we followed them and found that the red group was just finishing their tour.  So we stayed with them and when their tour of the Duomo was complete we followed them to the Piazza del Campo, the city square, where we found our green group as they were splitting up for lunch and free time.  What a relief!  

The Piazza del Campo was encircled with restaurants and we enjoyed a very relaxing meal after being frazzled by our experience of being lost.  We were treated to a beautiful impromptu concert by one of the waiters during our lunch.  The waiter's voice was angelic as he sang an traditional Italian song, but we were so surprised to turn around and see that this singer with an Italian voice was actually Asian!  Italy it seems, is a melting pot much like the United States.

Many of the restaurants we visited had a large television sharing world wide news.  This restaurant also had a television, but instead of showing the news, we viewed scenes of the famous Palio de Siena, a famous horse race that is held twice each year in the Piazza, once on the Feast of the Visitation and the other on the Feast of the Assumption.  The entire Piazza is covered with sand for this popular race which is so treacherous that many of the bareback riders are thrown from their horses.  Each horse represents a contrade, or district, of Siena.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

lunch at the Piazza del Campo
Fonte Gaia-Fountain of the World
After lunch we had some time to wander around the Piazza, relax in the sun and visit some shops.  Paul and I stopped in a quaint little grocery store.  It truly was little consisting of only three rows of food but included what looked like an amazing butcher shop and bakery.  We had been looking for a restroom but couldn't find one anywhere so I asked the baker if he could help me.  He led me to this display of pastas and grains and told me that it was the bathroom.  I was a bit confused but soon discovered that the wall opens to reveal a bathroom!  It was the most interesting and amusing experience we had in Siena!  

From Siena we travel to Loreto, one of my favorite spots on the itinerary!

A bathroom door!

Paul, exiting the bathroom

Two Chefs

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Italian Pilgrimage: Assisi

mountain mists of Assisi

Assisi was instant love.  Who wouldn't love it?  Not only were its churches magnificent and it's religious history profound but the city had an old-world charm with winding and steep cobblestone streets, buildings covered with flowers and plants, and windows and doors that captivated my heart. Our stay in Assisi felt like a step back in time and was much too short.

My deepest prayer in Assisi was for peace, especially for peace in my hometown of Milwaukee which has been so beleaguered by violence in recent months, and for my pastor, Fr. Tim Kitzke, who has been named the Vicar General for Urban Ministry in Milwaukee and is working so hard to bring peace to our city.  I know that my prayer for peace, united to the prayers of St. Francis, was very strong here in the saint's hometown.  

Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels

Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels
The Portiuncula of St. Francis (source)

It was late in the day when we arrived.  Our first stop was a quick visit to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels at the bottom of the hill of Assisi which holds St. Francis' Portiuncula and the Transito where St. Francis died.  We weren't allowed to take pictures inside of the Basilica and, because Mass was going on, we had to move quickly and quietly through the church so I don't have a lot of memories of what it looked like inside.

However, there is one particular memory of the Basilica that will live in my memory forever.  Just as we were moving toward the end of the tour and getting ready to leave, Patrizia, our fabulous guide, told us to turn around so we could see a miracle.  And there, on the pillar ledge, sat two white doves. Patrizia told us that those doves are always there and never leave.  I was in awe because who else but St. Francis, who preached to the birds telling them to be grateful to God, would have the long-term devotion of these beauties in his Basilica?  Later that night, back at our hotel room, I posted a picture of those doves on my facebook page and was then even more in awe when my friend George left this comment:  "They're still there?  They were there ten years ago when I visited Assisi!"

the miracle of the doves at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels
Besides The Basilica of Our Lady of the Angels we also visited The Basilica of St. Francis, the Basilica of St. Clare, where we were able to pray before her incorrupt body, the Church of St. Damiano where St. Clare had her monastery, and had time to explore on our own.  Needless to say it was a busy day!  

We weren't allowed to take pictures in any of these churches.  At first I thought that was unfortunate but considering how outrageously gorgeous they were, it really was a blessing because I wouldn't have been able to put my camera away, there was just so much to see and take in! What really amazed me about the Basilica of St. Francis was that it was actually two churches, one right on top of the other!  I sincerely could not tell that from looking at the outside.

Still, I really would have liked pictures because I wanted to be able to see the inside of The Basilica of St. Francis again. It was so marvelous and no matter how long we would have stayed there it wouldn't have been long enough to admire and pray with all of the beautiful frescoes.  So I'm glad that I found a website where I can view all of the beauty of those churches right online, and the quality of those pictures is much greater than any I could have taken. I encourage you to pay this website a visit and enjoy and pray with the images you find there.  You will be most happy that you did!

The Basilica of St. Francis

We followed the monks right inside!
The Holy Door of the Basilica of St. Francis
The view from the Basilica of St. Francis

Further down the hill from the town center of Assisi we found the San Damiano Monastery where St. Clare established her order of nuns, the Poor Clares, and also where she died.  Bishop Don shared these facts about St. Clare with us:  She was born in a noble family whose plan for her was to marry a noble man.  Then Clare saw Francis acting out the Gospel in a radical way and she snuck out of the house and met Francis who cut her hair and helped her to make her consecration.  According to legend, her family came to get her to bring her back home but as they tried to lift her she became very heavy and they weren't able to move her.  

Bishop Don commented that it might be easy to criticize her family for their unhappiness about Clare's decision to become a consecrated nun but her family was much like the parents in the 1960's whose kids became hippies.  In a way, Francis and Clare were like those hippies but in a religious context.  And, as is true even today, sometimes parents can be the biggest obstacles to religious life.

Regarding San Damiano, Bishop Don said that while Francis was out evangelizing, Clare was here praying.  There is a story regarding Saracen soldiers who came to attack Assisi.  All of the nuns were in terror but St. Clare bravely took the monstrance containing the Holy Eucharist and carried it to the window at the top of the monastery where she blessed the Saracens with it and they all fled.

Before she died, she was too sick to get out of bed so the Mass miraculously appeared on the wall of her cell.  Because of this she was made patroness of television.

The order of Poor Clares is very austere and due to that austerity Pope Innocent IV only approved her order two days before she died.  When we made our way through the monastery, we climbed steep steps that led to a large, bare room, the very room where St. Clare carried the monstrance to deter the Saracens.  It was this room, on beds of nothing more than straw, that St. Clare and her sisters slept. After so many hundreds of years, the building itself maintains its austerity.

The Courtyard at San Damiano Monastery as viewed from the room where the nuns slept

With the time that we had free to explore I wanted to look for a St. Francis holy card for a sweet little friend of mine from church.  I mentioned this to Bishop Hying when we had finished lunch and he suggested that we go back to the Basilica of St. Francis and look in their gift shop so that our purchase would support the church.  So Paul and I took his advice and we began our adventuous journey.  Now I've always prided myself on my sense of direction, but I think that St. Francis was trying to shake some of that pride off my soul, because I insisted that I knew the way to the Basilica but I only succeeded in getting Paul and I lost.  Luckily, Paul's sense of direction is not askew and he was able to get us to the Basilica, but not before we discovered a little hidden treasure.  

We found an intriguing staircase and couldn't resist exploring.  At the bottom we were surprised to discover the birthplace of St. Francis himself!  The small room has been made into a church and the door was open for visiting.

the steps leading to St. Francis birthplace

The Oratory of San Francesco

After our brief visit to the oratory we continued on our way through the winding. twisting roads of Assisi.  We stopped at one of the many restaurants for our first Italian gelato.  The pistachio and lemon were both divine!  Paul and I were a little amused when we heard the Beatles singing "Love Me Do" on the gelato shop's radio.  As our time in Italy continued we found that it was a common occurrence to hear American rock music like Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" and Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" playing inside many gelato shops and gift shops.  I suspect that Italy caters a bit too much to the tourists.  In actuality we would have preferred to hear authentic Italian music playing at the shops we visited instead of American music!

We eventually found the Basilica of St. Francis and there was Bishop Don standing in the upper church praying with the frescoes!  We were surprised to see that he had gotten there so quickly as we had left the restaurant before he did.  He must have taken the direct path while we were wandering the long way!

On our wayward excursion to find the Basilica of St. Francis
When we arrived back in the village we had just enough time to stop inside the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva before our bus took us back to the hotel. The exterior of the church seemed very out of place in Assisi and the explanation is that it was actually an ancient temple of the Roman Goddess of wisdom, Minerva, having been built in the first century right over her burial place.  Over time the temple was abandoned and when restored was used as a church and then a prison and then a church again.

From Sacred Destinations:  "In 1539, Pope Paolo III, making a visit to Assisi, ordered the Temple of Minerva to be completely restored and dedicated to the Virgin Mary, queen of true wisdom. The temple then took the name of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva). In 1613, the bishop of Assisi donated Santa Maria sopra Minerva to the friars of the Third Regular Order of St. Francis."

When we stepped inside the church we found another group of pilgrims praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet and they welcomed us to pray with them.  How amazing it was to pray inside of a church with a 2000 year history!

Our next stop:  Siena!
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
High Altar inside the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

some of the reasons I fell in love with Assisi

I really got a kick out of the shutters and how they opened halfway to let in air and light

Of course we had to take a picture of the chef!