Rome ~ Layers Like Lasagna

There are layers of history in Rome—“layers like lasagna”—one tour guide suggested. Literally, layers were built on top of layers, buildings that had been destroyed by war and natural disaster were covered with dirt and new buildings were erected over ruins. Symbolically, many Christian churches were built over ancient pagan sites.

The architecture, art, and religious history communicate something spiritual, a deeper story with layers of meaning, like lasagna. I’ll share some of my favorite places, and the journey, from my trip to Rome to attend the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates:

St. Peter’s Basilica and the Scavi tour

On my first morning in Rome, I had scheduled a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica and the Scavi tour of the necropolis beneath, including St. Peter’s tomb. My plan was to have a taxi drop me off where I needed to be to start the tour for a stress-free morning, no need for coat and umbrella, and no need to hurry. Where I thought I could find a taxi, there were none; where a distracted police officer pointed, there were none. A little nervous, I decided I should just start walking in the general direction of the Vatican or I may not get there in time. Surely, I would see the large dome and signs along the way. There were none.

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I remember that the Vatican was just to the left of the Tiber River as it changes directions. With this vague idea, I set off on a lovely tree-lined path along the Tiber River. The views were beautiful—this will be just fine, I say to myself, I have plenty of time.Getting a little chilly, but I’ll be there soon. The online map said a 45-minute walk. Oops, a few sprinkles, a few more. Darn it, why didn’t I bring the umbrella I had packed?

 I reach the point where the Vatican should be but I see no less than six different options to take; I see no dome and no signs. In panic mode now, with it getting colder and sprinkling more, I ask a woman, “Where is the Vatican?”  Mind you, I had asked one young couple who responded, “In hurry, no time” and another woman who circled herself saying, “hmmm” whom I decided not to trust for accurate directions, but this woman—she is my angel. “No English. I take you,” she said. Oh, thank God.

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She takes me a few blocks to the intersection where I finally see St. Peter’s Basilica (and its dome. Who knew the Vatican was surrounded by other tall buildings? Not what I had pictured.) I have finally arrived, yet I still need to walk several blocks in light rainfall, so I duck into a little storefront outside of St. Peter’s Square and buy an umbrella. Better safe, than sorry, I think.

Thirty seconds later, new umbrella overhead, I experienced the hardest rainfall I’ve ever walked in (outside of the time I got lost in Munich, Germany …. hmmm, seems to be an international pattern). I arrive at the gate of the Swiss Guard in plenty of time to stand in the cold and rain for at least 30 more minutes before the tour began. Still, I am grateful I walked. I learned, and saw, much more than I would have had I been delivered directly to St. Peter’s Square. There are layers of meaning when you surrender to the journey. 

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The tour was quite amazing, but I was most struck by the case the guide built throughout the tour that the Basilica was indeed constructed over St. Peter’s tomb. The area beneath St. Peter’s Basilica was only discovered in the 1940s and during excavation, archaeologists found a 4th-century burial ground and a grave marked with ancient lettering translated, “Peter is here”.  I was so touched by the reverence our guide showed letting each individual participant have a few moments to privately view the site. It was a moment for the heart to remember only; no photos were permitted on the tour. Nearby the guide pointed out an elaborate grate in the ceiling—directly above, one could hear the prayers and responses of a Mass in progress in the Basilica. For centuries, what laid below was hidden. This faith, built on a grave, has layers of meaning, like lasagna.

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I had plenty of time to explore the Basilica and its side chapels in quiet solitude when I went on my own, but on the World Congress of Benedictine Oblates group tour we learned some of the symbolism behind the artwork, altars, and relics from a guide. I learned the bronze statue of St. Peter holding the keys of heaven was a pilgrimage itself—for centuries pilgrims touched or kissed his right foot, literally wearing it thin, to receive a blessing from the Church’s first Pope, hoping the gates of heaven would be opened for them. This Catholic faith holds so many beautiful rituals with layers of meaning. Layers, like lasagna.

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Aventine Hill, One of the Seven Hills of Rome

Before going to the conference center, I stayed two nights at a monastery at the bottom of Aventine Hill, chosen to be near Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino, the monastery of Fr. Mauritius Wilde. Located in a surprisingly residential area near the Coliseum, I favored the solitude and quiet of the crooked, narrow street lined with gardens, parks and ancient churches to the bustle and crowds of St. Peter’s Basilica.

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On the leisurely journey up the hill to visit Fr. Mauritius, I visited the Basilica of Santa Sabina, the oldest Roman Basilica built between 422 and 432, where Pope Francis celebrated Ash Wednesday.  Traditionally, the Pope begins the celebration at Sant’ Anselmo’s, walking on foot from one basilica to another, to celebrate the beginning of Lent. Further up the hill, I visited Santi Bonifacio and ­­­Santa Prisca, as well as a park that overlooked the center of Rome, and the famous Knights of Malta Keyhole that outlines a view of St. Peter’s perfectly.

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It was a delight to see Fr. Mauritius, who moved to Rome after serving as Prior for six years at Schuyler’s Christ the King Priory. After a behind-the-scenes tour of the academic center, monastery, chapel and grounds, we enjoyed conversation on the patio. I had kept in touch with Fr. Mauritius since his move the year before, but this revealed another layer, like lasagna. There is a contentment knowing just where my friend’s home is, to know where he works and prays.

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St. Benedict’s cell at San Benedetto and Montecassino Abbey

Both destinations were a highlight of sacred sites visited—first, the cell of St. Benedict while he studied in Rome (about the year 500) before founding his first monastery in Subiaco. The cell, or small room, has been preserved; a small chapel adjacent, San Benedetto in Piscinula, dates back to the 12th century. I loved, LOVED, loved this special place. I could have stayed there for hours. To know that St. Benedict listened “with the ear of his heart” in this very place, rejecting the political corruption of Rome and what was expected of him, to pursue the call he knew was from God—well, for a Benedictine Oblate, this is a moment. Had I not been in a group with a full sight-seeing schedule, I would have likely spent a half-day in contemplation at this chapel.

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After a beautiful drive in the countryside east of Rome, we arrived at the Abbey of Montecassino where St. Benedict wrote his Rule. We were welcomed, after a foggy drive up the mountain, by clear skies and a heartfelt blessing at Mass—“This is your house as Benedictines,” the priest said, “St. Benedict welcomes you, hugs you, blesses you.” After Mass, we visited the original part of the Abbey, dating back to the 5th century, which had not been destroyed during World War II. This was another profound experience—to be in the place where the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide for monastics and oblates for over 1500 years, was penned. Later we met a gentleman who, as a little boy, had taken refuge with his family at the Abbey during the War, hoping to be safe with the monks high on the mountain. How devastating war is, how many layers there are—for this young boy and his family, the nearby town and, ultimately, the Abbey, bombed in the Battle of Monte Cassino. There are no winners in war.

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Place is a powerful thing

It gives us perspective, a sense of where we’ve come from and how we’ve gotten here. The Christian story unfolded in this place of Rome. I am so grateful to have experienced this place of Peter and Paul, the places of St. Benedict and so many other holy places.

But I remember that home is holy too.

Home is where I work out the tension between stability and conversion. Home is where I listen to the ear of my heart. Home is the most important place; it is our present moment. Home is the people you surround yourself with, our friends and family. Our story unfolds at home. This is where we uncover our many layers, like lasagna.

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My first meal in Rome–lasagna!

Rome: Packing and unpacking can be a lot of work

It’s been a little over a month since I’v­e returned from Rome. I’ve reported on official business of the Oblate Congress in a four-part blog series on Being Benedictine.

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It takes me awhile to unpack my feelings and the higher purpose or meaning within my experiences, but I’m getting there. For so many months I was filled with vorfreude, German for “anticipatory joy”, that bursting-with-excitement, overflowing-with-enthusiasm, oh-my-God-I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-to-me-this-is-a-trip-of-a-lifetime feeling (just like the Germany pilgrimage.)

Here are a few things I’ve unpacked so far:

Worry is hardly ever worth it. 
Before I left, I confessed I felt guilty taking time away from school, that I was nervous about leaving my classroom for so many days. But it turned out there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Projects and assignments were graded, questions (if there were any) had been dealt with, students worked hard and truly didn’t miss a beat. I am so thankful for Karen Kay, my former department chair, friend and substitute teacher extraordinaire for giving me the gift of peace of mind and an easy transition back into the classroom (despite the jet lag)!

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Things often turn out differently than expectedSometimes there are disappointments, sometimes pleasant surprises—the Rome experience was no exception. The night before I left, I pulled a muscle in my back while packing. It was one of those I-thought-that-only-happens-to-old-people moments when I simply bent down but did not come back up in a painless fashion. The pain ripped up my back, down my leg and I collapsed on the floor.

So many feelings—pain, fear, self-pity, anger, sadness, pain, worry, pain—coursed through me that evening, during a sleepless night and into the morning when I became worried that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip. And what if I did go and couldn’t walk when I arrived? But this was a trip of a lifetime, well-planned and prayed for, I was determined to go. I might as well try, I told myself, inching my way to my parent’s car to go to the airport.

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It’s always about the people.
Before I even left, my heart was full of love and support from those who sent wishes of joyful and safe travels. Oblate friends, Betty, Teresa, and Diane, gave me a special blessing and Dee promised to pray a novena and have her husband light candles for me at daily Mass while I traveled. The prayers helped sustain me and give me confidence during some uncomfortable times.

Because I was so busy before I left, my husband got spending money and exchanged it for Euros at the bank, helping to take a few things off my list of things-to-do. When I became concerned that my accommodations would be too far away for sight-seeing, Fr. Mauritius helped secure a room for me at a monastery on Aventine Hill just a few minutes from his.  The night of my I-guess-this-means-I’m-old back injury, my friend, Beth, gave me a new box of pain relief patches for the journey and my physical therapist friend, Barb, gave me advice for surviving the long flight. On the way to the airport, my dad hurried into the pharmacy to get a prescription for me.

At the airport, the kind woman checking me in asked if I needed help lifting my luggage onto the scale (thank God, under 50 lbs) and the sweet young lady who sold me a snack noticed that I was a teacher (since I was proudly wearing my I ♥ Public Schools t-shirt) and said, “Keep makin’ the world go ‘round, darlin’!”

These simple, thoughtful words and gestures made such a difference to me. Love one another, it really works. “And be ye kind one to another…” -Ephesians 4:32

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Amazingly and miraculously, the flight wasn’t terribly uncomfortable. Even without back pain, an international flight can be rough, but I was providentially seated next to the sweetest special needs woman from New York City named Dorothy, “like the Wizard of Oz”, she said. This introduction began a lovely 8-hour relationship that still brings a smile to my face.

Looking over the beverage menu before our flight even took off, Dorothy exclaimed, “They have Starbucks coffee; this airline is first class.” Later when Dorothy was asked if she wanted sugar with her coffee, she responded, “No, sugar. I’m already sweet enough.”

Traveling with a group and a few counselors helping out, Dorothy said she wants to “travel all around the world.” When I asked what was taking her to Rome, she said “I work at the Shop and Go and I paid for this trip. I work hard for my money.”

The day before, her counselor had taken Dorothy shopping. She got two new pairs of jeans and a shirt and she told me not to tell anyone, but she also snuck a pair of jeans in the cart that she really liked. She had cleaned her room that morning and had done laundry. She was thrilled to get free earbuds, to have video games to play and a variety of animated movies, including Cars 3, for entertainment.

Whenever anyone sneezed she said, “God Bless You”, when she needed something she said, “Jodi, Jodi, I need help”, and she mentioned a few times that she hoped she would have a coffee pot in her hotel room. Dorothy loves coffee.

A kind heart and simple mind, Dorothy truly lived in the moment. She kept busy with entertainment while I napped. I learned when we landed that she had slept not a wink on the eight-hour flight. She enjoyed it to the fullest. I thought of Dorothy a lot in Rome and since I’ve been home.

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Miracles happen.
I survived the flight with very little pain. When I got off the airplane, I could walk. When I was dropped off at the wrong entrance to the monastery where I was staying for a few days, I was able to pull my luggage around the block and even help carry it up three flights of stairs to my humble accommodations.

After a Roman nap, I explored the area near me—including quaint, crooked streets, simple churches, ruins and the Colleseum. I walked over 6 kilometers and enjoyed my first Italian meal of lasagna and red wine. And I was in very little pain. I was grateful, so grateful, to be moving, to have arrived.

Rome. It begins.

I guess there will be a part 2 to this post.

Packing and unpacking can be a lot of work.

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Rome: Confessions, Truths and Carpe Diem!

Confession: I feel a little guilty for taking nine days off during the school year.

Truth: But not enough that I wouldn’t seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Rome.

It’s unheard of for a teacher to take off two weeks during the school year. First, we only get eleven days off for sick or vacations days per school year. Second and more importantly, it’s a lot of work to be gone, planning what students will do, securing a trusted substitute teacher to deliver curriculum, and “letting go” of controlling my classroom. (Perhaps this has something to do with being a bit of a perfectionist, control-freak, as I’m learning about Enneagram, Type One.)  Usually, teachers take time off for a wedding or funeral, a child starting college, an important doctor’s appointment, but a two-week long trip? Nope.

After reviewing my teaching contract, I knew I didn’t need formal permission to take the nine days off in a row, but it was important to me that I have my principal’s blessing because it can be just as difficult for students when teachers are absent. But, Principal Brent Toalson was so gracious in understanding my unique request to take time off. He agreed with what I strongly believe: life is short and it’s important to seize the day when opportunities come.

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Confession: I’m a little nervous about leaving my classroom for two weeks.

Truth: I have no reason to feel nervous because I have an amazing substitute teacher, Karen Kay, a retired business teacher and my former department chair, who will step in and do everything perfectly (I think she’s probably an Enneagram One, too.)  When my mother-in-law passed away two years ago at the beginning of the school year, Karen taught the first week of classes for me. It was the best start of a school year my students ever had!

So CARPE DIEM!! I’m off to Rome to attend the Fourth International Congress for Benedictine Oblates. The conference is hosted every four years for Benedictine oblates, novices and oblate directors from around the world.

Oblates are ordinary people who want to live as a monk in the world. Affiliated with a specific monastery (for me, that is Christ the King Priory in Schuyler, Nebraska), oblates strive to become holy in their everyday life, in their family and their workplace. Oblates promise to live a prayerful life according to the Rule of St. Benedict. I write about being an oblate at Being Benedictine.

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The Congress theme, A Way Forward – The Benedictine Community in Movement, will provide encouragement for oblates to be peacemakers in a broken world, sharing hospitality in the face of war, terrorism, refugee crises and religious fanaticism, and to be stewards of an abused planet as challenged and inspired by Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si”. Surrounded by chaos, idolized entertainment, digital noise, and consumerism, oblates desire a life of silence, contemplation, and simplicity.  We hope to answer the question: How can we as oblates create and contribute to communities around us – in our oblate groups and chapters, in our families and neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in our own monasteries of oblation and in society as a whole?

Oblates desire to be change agents in their own communities – together finding a new way forward. It sounds like a daunting task, a tall order, and very serious business. But as an oblate, I have hope that each of us can do our part to encourage peace.

A few things I look forward to:

  • Meeting and hearing Keynote Speaker, Sister Joan Chittister, OSB aka my (s)hero! Joan is one of the best known international speakers on Benedictine spirituality and social justice in the world. Author of over 50 books, Sr. Joan has been a courageous and sometimes controversial advocate of social justice, especially for women, in both church and society. She founded Benetvision, a web-based movement sharing Benedictine spirituality and currently co-chairs the United Nations-sponsored Global Peace Initiative of Women. More info about Joan Chittister HERE.
  • Spending time with my spiritual director and friend, Father Mauritius Wilde, who moved to Rome a year ago to serve as Prior of Sant Anselmo Abbey. I’m excited to see where he lives and works, to walk the streets of Rome together, to sneak in a spiritual direction session and to just be in the presence of a special friend. Fr. Mauritius writes a blog and has over thirty podcasts on Benedictine spirituality.
  • Visiting historic and religious sites including the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica and the necropolis on a Scavi tour, St. Benedict’s cell at San Benedetto and the Abbey he founded at Montecassino and attending a General Audience with Pope Francis (I harbor a secret desire of a drop-in visit by him at the conference. I will secure selfie evidence if my dream comes true.)

Confession: I plan to post updates while in Rome, making a conscious effort to let go of some perfectionist tendencies I have of editing, re-editing, and rewriting. Another confession: I have a few dozen blog posts sitting in a folder waiting for the perfect touches. I take solace in the fact that there are few sleepless nights for those wondering when I will publish my next post.) I surrender the notion that any of my blogs are perfect anyway.

Truth: I plan to live in the present moment, seizing opportunities, meeting new friends and enjoying many new experiences. Carpe diem! 

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