I had a dream last night. I’ve been thinking about it through the day. Not much insight yet, but it’s thought-provoking.
I was in a church, a beautiful building. I knew right away I was in Italy. Somehow I came to know the church was Santa Maria Novella. I had forgotten, but looked it up after I woke up, that it is located in the city of Florence.
Standing talking with a group (maybe visitors?), we were looking toward the altar. Suddenly, from the two extremes left and right, it began to shake, to tremble, and finally to collapse. There was noise and dust and cries of fear and surprise. The whole altar eventually went down and the great window above it trembled as well.
And then the dream ended. Here’s a link about Santa Maria Novella. Hopefully no follow-up dream tonight!
This is the first real travel since Covid began its long and challenging visit. I arrived two days ago in the City of Brotherly love, and have been settling in to a routine of prayer and discovery here in Germantown. I’m in Saint Margaret’s House at Saint Luke’s Church in Germantown. I am here as a participant in a short-term popup Christian community. I am here with a few members of the Community of Francis and Clare, a dispersed group of men and women, spread over the United States and elsewhere, who are living life in the world in the spirit of those two great saints given us all by the beautiful town of Assisi.
A word about Saint Luke’s Parish. The parish was founded in 1811, It is a good part of a city block, featuring an imposing rectory that houses the parish office, the beautiful church, Saint Barnabas Hall, and Saint Margaret’s House. (There may be more!). I will share some images here.
All whom we have met thus far have been extraordinarily welcoming. The rector has been gracious, and introduced us to the church Monday morning and then spent time in good conversation. It is enlightening to hear him speak about the parish through Covid and beginning in present days to emerge. They have a food pantry open twice weekly. Before pandemic in summer they provided breakfast, lunch, and a take-home dinner to kids. In Saint Margaret’s House, retreats take place several times a year, with new plans and possibilities ahead. I love the fact that one of the signs as you approach the parish center campus speaks of “the urban center at Saint Luke’s.” And I am gratified and inspired by the truth that they do what I have written of and much more by finding and winning grants and by teaming up with other organizations doing good work here. They even work with a group helping to provide a path for families who want to remain in the area to successfully buy their home over a generation to provide stability for families and the community into the future.
Here in Saint Margaret’s House, I marvel with gratitude at the graceful speed at which genuine community can be born and begin to deepen. As mentioned, the other visitors here are all members of a Franciscan community recently founded. They have a common history and converging interests. In addition, the gentleman who is resident in the House has connected with the group. I have felt welcomed and included in every way. This experience moves me to thank God for the living connective tissue of the heart that bonds disciples of Jesus already, even as we meet. This ‘head-start’ may be true also of folks who share a common interest in Romanesque architecture or the novels of Marilynne Robinson, or whatever. But it certainly is felt here and now.
For me this coming-to-a-halt in terms of the everyday seems already absolutely vital in a way that I had not previously imagined. Arriving March 1, 2020 at Saint Matthew’s in Worcester MA we fell together immediately headlong into the experience of pandemic that no one of us would have imagined. The time since, all of it, has been filled and fraught with stress and challenge and striving and loss and victory; with grief’s sorrow and the repeated near-death and renewed life of hope. All of it, absolutely all of it, absolutely exhausting; emptying out and reconfiguring the very soul in a way and to a depth that no other experience has even approached.
So to sit on the front step here this evening, a steaming mug of black tea clutched in two hands and simply to witness a “Welcome” banner blowing, and at my ground-level perch to look through the plant life toward the churchyard – as little as it sounds – is the stuff of rebirth, of resuscitation, of (as must be said in this season) shared resurrection with the Christ.
To sit long in conversation, to remain long in silent prayer, to walk long in new company – these little things are the stuff of life. They are a long deep breath of the created delights that the God of Eden and of Easter has brought to be, to be noticed, and to be lived. Here is the first time in an uncountable time to rest in the present passing moment with a sense of fullness; and in realizing that, with a grateful heart.
Next week will see a return to a place that became lastingly sacred to me during the summer of 2005. I look forward with joy to that place and time. I am also immensely happy to live this week, this evening, this moment in this time and place.
I didn’t know what work my new human did when we first met and he brought me to Brooklyn. We dogs don’t seem to have much say in that kind of thing. And that’s okay with me. Humans have this saying about “working like a dog,” but whenever and wherever that was, it’s different now for most of my kind. I would hate to have to ‘work like a human.’ People look to me like most of them work too much and a lot of them don’t seem to like it too much. They just seem unhappy. I hear them saying that they have to do it to pay something called ‘the bills,’ which I have never seen. But I guess the bills really do exist. I have heard others say they work so that they can eat. That one I cannot understand at all. I have eaten twice a day all my life and I get a lot of cookies most days too. I even like carrots and brocolli and lettis. But I never remember working so that I would have them to eat. Poor humans.
Anyway, my human it turns out works at different places that are called church. I did not know what that was either. My other people went a lot of places, but I don’t think they ever went to places called church. I never heard them mention church. But my new human is there a lot.
After we were in Brooklyn I got to go over to church with him. It only takes about 10 minutes to walk there. It is a fun walk and we go by two churches on the way, so I get to see what churches look like. They are all a little different, but they are more different from people’s houses than they are different from each other.
The walk was fun, but not when we got there. There are a lot of little kids who go to school at this church my human goes to. They are okay, but they are really loud and they move fast and they rush at me and make all kinds of noises. I get so afraid that I feel my eyes get big and I can’t breathe right. I don’t think they want to hurt me, but wow. When they are all together they are . . . I don’t know the word. But I know that you can’t ignore them!
So we go inside the church. Inside it is dark and quiet. I like that a lot, especially with all the little humans on the other side of the door. There are just a few people inside most days. There is a nice lady downstairs who sits at a desk and talks on the phone to other people. There is man upstairs who is the boss. He is interesting and he is nice to me. He has a dog too!
The church is big and has a lot of color and pretty windows. It is a fun place to run. Me and the little humans agree about that. One day a week a bunch of other people come to the church. There is something called music which I don’t understand but they like that and they open their mouths and they all make the same sounds (or almost at least).
Some of the people at church seem very happy. They seem to be kind to each other. But some of the others seem crabby, like everything is wrong and they don’t like anybody. I am not sure why both kinds of people come to church. But I have seen the same kinds of people in all the places where I have gone to work with my human. I can tell the kind of person each one is as soon as I meet them and hear them speak. I keep away from the upset ones. I don’t know the secret of calming them down. My human doesn’t know how either. But sometimes he thinks he does!
The church he worked at in Brooklyn has its name. Churches have names, like people do. That church is called Grace. I like that name a lot. I had a name when I came to my new human. I can’t remember that name now. My new human didn’t like my old name too much. But that did not mean that he didn’t like me. I am glad that I could understand that.
So one day a little while after we lived in Brooklyn, he told me that my new name is Grace. I like that name. And sometimes he says Gracie instead, but it’s about the same thing. So that’s who I am and everybody knows it now. When we see new people, and I am always scared then, he tells them that I’m Grace and they like it too. They call me by my name right away and sometimes, I think, they want to be friends.
For a really shy little thing, Gracie proved early that she can move in a lot of circles. Some circles really make her frightened, like circles of pre-kindergarten Brooklyn residents. She can’t seem to make any sense of what they’re about. (And that’s probably about right). But she can also show up at a fancy dress party (just passing through of course) and attract a lot of positive attention. Again she doesn’t really like or look for the attention, but she is getting accustomed to it.
She has these really deep brown eyes. Everybody says that they look absolutely human. So when people look at her, they stop. Sometimes they don’t speak for a moment. They seem to be figuring something out, like ‘did I know this creature in a prior life?’ But then they welcome her and fuss and coo over her. She doesn’t get a lot less scared, it seems to me. But she is learning all the time.
People ask me sometimes why she doesn’t come generally to services in the church. I have no real answer so I joke and say that she is a Presbyterian. Now mind you, Presbyterians are fine folks by and large and I don’t mean to suggest anything other than that. But the implication is that she might be more comfortable with folks she belongs to in terms of worship. Anyway, it’s only meant to give Gracie an out, until -if ever- it becomes clear she wants to come to worship. But church she is getting used to. She is there more hours each week than the majority of church members. I like having the company. If I am sitting at a desk or table, Grace is under it, always, right at my feet and aware of everyone and everything. She’s kind of like a little guardian angel. I often have thought that if she had human speech it would be fascinating every day, without exception, to hear her take on what happened that day.
Maybe someday we will be able, somehow, to have that conversation.
I really value the first hours of the day – the gradual transition from darkness to light, the increasing sounds of the town waking up and beginning to move, the opportunity to take initial nourishment both in the form of a little breakfast and a time of quiet prayer and meditation before diving into the fray.
As everyone who has written on interior prayer/meditation whom I have read have noted, I find the ‘fray’ mentioned above is going on in my mind even as the day gently opens up around me. It continues to astound me as I sit quietly that my mind, only just returned to post-sleep consciousness, bounces merrily (or un-) from one memory, concern, worry, point of uncertainty to another. As John Main OSB and others who have taught on centering prayer over the past generation have noted, the best response is simply to stay there, to keep praying, to (using Main’s phrase), “say your word.”
I can fairly enough say that the best evidence of my faithfulness to all this is actually bodily. I sit down and stay in one place for the period of prayer.
How much life does it take to bring the beauties and wonders of heart and of mind into consonance with one another? I have come to believe that I will be entirely at rest only about a half hour post my eventual taking leave of the world!