Friday, May 17, 2013

Towery City

It's been a long while since I quoted any Hopkins on my blog, and many readers may not even realize that the name of my blog comes from him.

Tonight I am for whatever reason thinking of the towers of Italy, Monteriggioni (above) being perhaps the most towery city I've seen there. San Gimignano may have more towers? not sure--but Monteriggioni has the most impressive arrangement of them, still intact.

Hopkins wasn't writing of either Italian city in his poem, but of Oxford, and was imagining the time when his hero, Duns Scotus, walked those streets and breathed that air. A man who "of all men most sways my spirits to peace."

For me, thoughts of Italy often sway my spirits to peace. It's not because Italy is perfect, or especially peaceful generally. Its cities can be chaotic and maddening at times. But because in recent years my trips there have been just that--trips--they have been peaceful. I wasn't working there, I wasn't going to teach a class or do a workshop, but just being there, seeing friends, taking it in. And of course in the countryside, it is breathtakingly beautiful, a peace-inducing sort of beauty.

A few years ago I spent three days in Assisi by myself and was able to follow the footsteps of Francis and Claire. Those were tiring days (I did a lot of walking! and much of it uphill!) but also very peace-filled days.

These days, I keep a photo on my desk at work of the view from Claire's prayer garden, a place where she used to pray, and a place where I stood briefly, once upon a time.

It's funny that I wrote "once upon a time." I only meant to say that some time back I stood there. But the phrase actually hints at what I want to say about why I keep the photo on my desk. It is a professional photo. a postcard I bought, and so as a photo it is quite close to perfect. And it is in a frame, which sets it apart. And so it is easy to see it there on my desk and think of it as "once upon a time in a land far, far away," as if it were not quite real.

But the truth is that I stood in that very spot, could have taken that picture myself if there had not been other people around me. And it wasn't once upon a time. It was five years ago. It isn't a land far, far away. It's a real place. Francis and Claire were real people who really lived and prayed and worked there, and I really walked in that city, felt the wind blow in the olive grove, watched the chickens pecking at the grass just as they do in Arkansas or Croatia, and I really did feel the peace and exhilaration of those days in Assisi and of the rest of my trip five years ago.

So when I look at that photo on my desk, I use it as a discipline. For one thing, it reminds me to pray. For another, it reminds me that whatever is going on right now, whether in my own life or in the lives of my clients, that may be difficult, distressing, or downright awful--whatever may be going on here and now--that is only one part of reality.

I often tell my clients when they are overwhelmed by the present, or by parts of their past, that if they can remember some good time, some time when life was simpler, or more joyful, or more peaceful, then they really must believe that those times were just as real as what is going on now that is so hard. They may seem long ago and far away, but they were every bit as real as the difficult present.

And, I tell them, from a metaphysical standpoint, they may have even been more real. Because love and joy and peace are things that will last forever. Pain is not. Evil is not. Suffering is not. They will not last, so in a sense they are less real. And my clients owe it to themselves, and to truth, to remember that and be strengthened by it.

And that is why I keep that picture from Assisi on my desk.

(Even though the picture above is Monteriggioni. I suppose after going in the direction I did with my writing that I should include some of Assisi five years ago. It's a fairly towery city itself.)

And here, for those interested, is the poem from which my blog got its name:

TOWERY city and branchy between towers;
Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-rounded;
The dapple-eared lily below thee; that country and town did
Once encounter in, here coped and poisèd powers;
Thou hast a base and brickish skirt there, sours       
That neighbour-nature thy grey beauty is grounded
Best in; graceless growth, thou hast confounded
Rural rural keeping—folk, flocks, and flowers.
Yet ah! this air I gather and I release
He lived on; these weeds and waters, these walls are what        
He haunted who of all men most sways my spirits to peace;
Of realty the rarest-veinèd unraveller; a not
Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece;
Who fired France for Mary without spot.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

China, Marbles, and Memories

Our house was built in 1941. The tag on the plates in the antique shop said they were from 1941. I had been wanting some of these plates for years, and the price was better than many I had looked at over the past decade. It seemed meant to be, so I bought four of them.

I love them because they are beautiful. I love them because they are hand painted and simple. I love them because they are old. I love them because they are Franciscan.

And I love this picture because if you look closely, you can see one of my other favorite dishes in the reflection, upside down! I did not notice that when I was pressing the button on the camera!

In one photo, I am amazed at how much love I see. The wooden dish rack belonged to Grandmother. The plate reminds me of the love of St. Francis. The bowl reflected on the plate was a gift of love from my friend Carolyn, and was made in Italy, a country I love terribly much.

And even the little marble in the dish in the window has special memories of love. A few years after Grandmother's death, I was visiting the woman who now lives in her house. This woman's grandchild was playing in the room, and his toy car or ball or something rolled into the fireplace. When she (or I? I don't recall) went to retrieve the toy, looking into the far recesses of the fireplace, we found this marble. She was surprised and said they had never had any marbles since moving into the house. I said Grandmother kept marbles in this room, and they were played with quite a few years back.

So she gave the marble to me, and I treasure it as a reminder of my own childhood and the childhoods of cousins, nieces, and nephews who played in that living room over the span of decades.

Since 1941, in fact, because their house was built the same year as the one we now live in.

It pays to look closely. You perceive more love when you look closely. As Dostoevski wrote, "Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day."