Tuesday, August 28, 2007

"i can change the world..."

NE SONO SICURISSMA
IL REGNO DEI CIELI
IL SIGNORE LO PROMETTI
EL LA DONA SOLO AI PROVERI
1st Letter of Saint Clare to Agnes

I spent the weekend with my godson and his family. I love calling him that, for some reason. This is Alberto Molina, boy genius, and his wife Dana and their baby Catalina. I met Alberto when I was still a postulant at New Camaldoli. The family of a classmate of his brought him down to the Hermitage for a retreat just after his graduation from Yale, double major in Political Science and Drama, which do not seem so disparate when you think about it, the possible birthplace of some very astute guerilla theatre. My recollection is that we met in the bookstore at NCH when I was on duty, and we got to talking, which led to a walk up to the lake, which led to a 15 year friendship. At one point, the summer of 1995, I was in New Hampshire staying with Romuald, of happy memory, at Epiphany Monastery, and Alberto came to visit for a week or so. Romuald left to accompany another monk who was transferring there on a drive across the country, leaving the place to Alberto and I, and we had a writing week. We both had our respective Powerbooks, and he would retire to a little shed out in the front and I would set up mine at the dining room table. He was working on a play at the time, and I was working on the Camaldolese Psalter, the Sunday Office if I recall correctly. We would touch base around noon, and then again at dinner time, after which we would roll a couple of Drum cigarettes on the back porch and talk ‘til bedtime. It is a great memory. We also drove out to the New Hampshire coast one day, which was quite a discovery to me––that New Hampshire even had a beach. At the end of that week I drove Alberto into The City (if you have to ask…), where he was sharing a loft near Chinatown with some friends. That’s another wonderful memory, shopping for dinner at little local store, meeting a group of high-powered Yalie classmates, many of whom were already working in media, MTV, Disney, etc. We have kept in touch as he pursued a career in stock trading and then all kind of creative ventures in computer technology. The latter is his m├ętier now, running Topaz Groups interactive media and building a creative web-based community called MassMind, hosts of our foundling consiglipennington.com web page. Alberto also met me in Italy in 1999, at the end of my first visit there, and we spent about a week together exploring Rome and Florence. In spite of the fact that I, having just finished an intensive one-month course in Italian, was supposed to be able to get us around with my command of the language, my main memory of tha time is of Alberto speaking very loud Spanish to waiters and shopkeepers while I slunk out to the sidewalk and waited. He is rather fearless.

I also prepared he and Dana for marriage, my one and only marriage prep to date, and presided at their wedding in Princeton in 1993. (This is why they refer to me as “our monk.”) They still tease me about the fact that I was more nervous than they before the wedding. It was only my second wedding, and had been fraught with difficulties: Dana is Jewish so we had to get special permission for Alberto to marry a non-Catholic non-Christian; they wanted to have it in a place that was not a church, so I had to get special permission for that; and then in the midst of a flurry of letters back and forth between their diocese and ours Alberto revealed to me that he was pretty sure that he had actually never been baptized. So, on one day Bishop Ryan was signing permission for me to perform his wedding to a non-Catholic in an extraordinary place, and the next day he was granting me permission to baptize and confirm him. Hence how I also became his godfather. (Richard Crowe from St Francis Kitchen actually stood in as proxy while I administered the sacraments.)

They now live in Princeton in a spacious house right next door to Dana’s parents home, where Dana actually grew up. Jim is a retired professor and academic dean from the University and Kate is among other things the former mayor. I’ve been to Princeton three or four times now, and I must admit that my earliest memories of New Jersey (Newark, Elizabeth) have now been replaced by images that justify it being called the Garden State. I love it there.

Sunday morning Alberto drove me down to the Monastery of the Poor Clares in nearby Bordentown, NJ. I know the nuns there from the Franciscan Camaldolese Contemplative weeks hosted by Dan Riley et al up at Mount Irenaeus, most especially Sr Mary Franics Flynn who has been one of my faithful ammas these past years. I have a special love for the Clares (le Clarisse, in italiano), or “the Poor Ladies,” as I like to call them. I love the fact that Francis established a strictly contemplative female counterpart to his own charism as hermit-preacher-wanderer, almost as if he knew he had to root himself in both the feminine and the contemplative, to which he often returned for spiritual refreshment like a wandering sannyasi pulling in at an ashram. As a matter of fact it was in the garden of the monastery of San Damiano, under the care of the nuns while suffering excruciating pain from his eye disease, that Francis wrote his Canticle of all Creatures. I began sketching some songs some months ago for an idea I had of a musical based on the life of Francis. My idea (please do not steal it, anyone!) was to have Clare narrate it. One of the texts that I want to adapt for a song is this one that I saw in a calligraphy on the wall at the monastery in Bordentown the last time I visited and later ascertained was from Clare’s first letter to Agnes.

NE SONO SICURISSMA
IL REGNO DEI CIELI
IL SIGNORE LO PROMETTI
EL LA DONA SOLO AI PROVERI

Of this I am sure,
the Lord promises and gives
the reign of heaven
only to the poor.

Mary Francis had invited me to preside at Mass, an invitation I was glad to accept. My homily, by the way, is an abridged version of the preceding blog. Afterwards Alberto and I along with a visiting friar (who is stationed at the New York province’s house of studies in Rome and who also works for the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith who had con-celebrated with me) were invited into a small dining room where we had a little breakfast and lively conversation with a handful of the nuns. I felt so comfortable there, as if those women truly know how to treat a passing pilgrim. Alberto seemed to have been very touched by their warm hospitality as well and I have hopes he will return with his women-folk.

Later that morning we headed into Manhattan (Men(h)a(t)’n I believe is close to the correct pronunciation, “h” and “t” optional). Two friends of theirs are involved in a new play that has been a part of the “Fringe Festival” on the lower east side. The neighborhood, the theatre and the audience itself were all in keeping with the fringe aspect. (There was an impressively optimistic but ultimately failed attempt at finding curb side parking.) The play, called “As Far As We Know,” is a re-creation of the story of Keith Maupin, a soldier from Batavia, Ohio who has been missing in Iraq since 2004 since his company was ambushed. There was one videotape released of him early on, and another very grainy one relased some time later that alleged to be his execution, but it was said to be inconclusive. His company came home but the military claims to be continuing the search for him even as his family still keeps hope alive that it was not he in the second videotape. The story is mostly their story. In a fascinating process, the play began with many of the members of this ensemble sitting around simply discussing the topic of torture and then improvising lines and scenes about it in something they called “The Torture Project.” Then when they heard of this story one of their ensemble went to Batavia and did research, interviewing the Maupin family extensively. After that they got more serious about it yet, and basically came together, chose characters and improvised scenes and lines until some kind of story and script emerged which was later written down by the director. This was off-Off-Broadway, mind you, and certainly not the slickest of productions nor the most professional, but I had not been to a live play in I can’t remember how long, and I was fascinated by the whole thing as well as, later when I found out about it, fascinated by the whole process.

We had dinner afterward with one of the lead characters, Sarah, who did a fine job playing the female military official assigned to be the liaison to the family and winds up getting too emotionally, personally involved with them, until she is later assigned to active duty in Iraq herself. Of course you can tell the anti-war, anti-military prejudice in something like this pretty far up-front, but they really did resist getting too heavy-handed. As Sarah explained to me afterward, the family is still supportive of President Bush and the war, and they wanted to be sympathetic to that if they were to tell the story truly. One scene, in which the missing soldier’s twin sister is doing research about various methods of torture, which morphs into a fantasy scene about a mock quiz show about torture methods (reminiscent of Bob Fosse’s death scene in “All That Jazz”), I found myself getting me very agitated then angry. I kept thinking that they were going “too far” and being disrespectful, but by the end of the scene, as the sister is coming out of the fantasy, I was almost in tears. Very disturbing.

Even more fascinating to me was to be around this group of people dedicating their lives to the arts in small ways, little theatres, obscure scripts, and genuinely seeming to be very dedicated to it as more than a passing hobby. As we walked to dinner I was asking Alberto why––Why do people write plays and act in them and dedicate themselves to theatre? It is the same question I have to ask myself about music all the time, especially since I am a monk as well; as Thomas Merton said that a monk had to ask himself every day why he became a monk, I have to ask why as a monk am I wandering around the country and the world singing? His answer, for himself at least, was about the same as mine. We really believe we can change the world, make it a better place, use art as a medium for convey truth and a better outlook on life. Just as they really think that that play can really effect change in the world, so I really do believe that the music I do changes peoples’ hearts––makes the world a “better place… a kinder place… helps the human race.”

After the play we went to a restaurant called Quintessence, “Raw-Vegan-Organic.” A very creative and delicious––and expensive¬¬––meal all made entirely of, well, raw, vegan, organic ingredients. It is an understatement to say that it was a stimulating experience to be in New York City even to just get a peek at some of the souls meandering and strutting through even a few of the panoply of neighborhoods there in their various habits and haloes in the self-named Capitol of the World.